Three Tips and a Reasonable Postponement

I owe you the final installment in our deconstruction of An Education.  And it’s coming – Wednesday, in fact. 

Worth the wait, too, as this story’s Part 4 shows us the difference between the ending in a character-driven story as compared to a thriller or mystery, or even a romance.

But, cool as that is, I just had to interrupt the series to share some thoughts with you.

I started reading a new novel today – I’m in Maui, reading next to a massive pool about 100 yards from the beach, which comprises nature’s optimal reading conditions – and was excited by what I read.

Yes, the book is great, as all of DeMille’s novels are, but what’s more exciting to me is how it illustrates how to open a story.  Which, in turn, led me to hatch a couple of cool ideas relative to process.

The book is The Lion, by Nelson DeMille.

This guy is probably my favorite author.  It’s a political thriller that’s also character-driven, with first person narrative by the hero, John Corey, who is a retired New York City cop now working for the feds tracking terrorists who are living and plotting amongst us. 

Which means, simply by virtue of his mission in life, we already root for this guy, And because he’s got an attitude about the enemy – DeMille is nothing if not a sweetly subtle smart-ass, one that you don’t want to make angry – we’re hooked.

The Lion is the sequel to a novel called The Lion’s Game (2000), a book that greatly influenced my storytelling preferences.  It used a unique approach – at least I’d never seen it done before – that involved using both first person and third person narrative points of view in alternating chapters. 

Which made a whole bunch of high school and junior college creative writing teachers want to picket Borders. 

This approach allowed us the intimacy of sharing the hero’s journey, both experientially and emotionally, while also showing what his adversary (so named in the title) was doing behind the curtain of the hero’s awareness.

I liked this so much that I used a similar first and third person narrative in my fourth published novel (Bait and Switch, 2004), which, while not selling all that well, at least earned a bunch of kudos from Publisher’s Weekly (starred review, Editor’s Selection, Best Books of 2004, and so on).

Guess those teachers didn’t know everything, after all.

But this post isn’t a book review, nor is it about me.  It’s about you.

And while it’s a bit of a book preview, it’s more just one writer sharing some ideas with other writers, all inspired by how DeMille opens his story.

Here’s what we can take away from this novel.

First, the opening chapter thrusts us right into a killer scene.  Not an overview, a review or a foreshadowing state-of-the-world essay, and not exactly a prologue, either.  Because a prologue begins the narrative sequence rather than showing us something that won’t make sense until later, which is the purpose of a prologue.

You’ll recall that every scene needs a mission and a piece of exposition to contribute to the story.  This happens within the first three pages of The Lion – we know why John Corey is there, what his role is in this equation, what the stakes and implication of the scene are, all while introducing the major players and setting the stage for the context of the story that follows.

A tall order, that.  And it’s done in first person, allowing the power of John Corey’s formidable wit and passion for protecting us from bad guys to suck us into the already compelling nature of the scene.

Reading this, contemplating it while slathering on more SPF 30 before turning the page, I realized that we can and should state the mission of a great opening scene as follows: right off the bat the reader is immersed in one or more of the three cornerstones of story – concept, character and theme. 

That becomes the goal of the scene.  Which means, it happens as a result of writer strategy and intention (planning), rather than random fallout.

Stating it as a goal renders the opening pages more powerful than just writing a dramatic scene that may or may not burn one or more of those elements into the reader’s brain. 

The first scene can’t be subtle. 

It needs to kick-start the story by being about what the story as a whole is about.  It is a microcosm of it.  But without telling us too much about it.

And you get to decide what your story is about. 

If you’re not sure yet, then don’t start writing it.  Or at least realize that any draft you do start before you know will have to be rewritten from page one, and thus it becomes an element of that search. 

In other words, a purpose-and-context-ignorant first draft is nothing other than story planning by another name.

Get the reader involved from the very first page.  Make it impossible for them to not keep turning the pages until that opening scene – usually the entire initial chapter– has reached a conclusive turning point, one that thrusts us eagerly into the following scene.

So that’s tip #1 today.  Be purposeful and strategic about your opening scene.

Tip #2 deals with our continuing quest to steepen our learning curve.

Here’s a two-hour exercise that can change your writing career.

Go to a bookstore.  Pick up novels that are by known authors in your chosen genre. 

Read the opening chapter of as many of them as you can.  Just the opening scene.

Notice how and why it works.  Or if it doesn’t work for you – if you aren’t hooked – try to determine why.

Notice how, often as not, the opening chapter kicks right off with the story’s hero involved in a scene-specific little drama… and/or how that scenario introduces the thematic landscape of the story… and/or how the character is so vivid and compelling it almost doesn’t matter what she or he is up to… yet.

You’ll see it.  You’ll feel it.  When you read several in one uninterrupted bookstore visit, and when you compare and contrast them, you’ll notice and absorb the technique in a more enlightening way than when you read the opening of a novel you’re intending to actually finish.

Because in a great book, the opening scene is often trumped by what follows.  Which means you’re likely to not remember and perhaps not even notice how it hooked you.

You need to notice.  You need to see it unfold – strategically, structurally and creatively.

And when you do, you’ll suddenly be aware of your job when you begin your next story.  I know that’s been my experience… especially when Nelson DeMille’s name is on the front cover.

Which is tip #3.

One you can apply on that bookstore research trip.

Study the authors you like, the ones you most seek to be compared to, first and foremost.  There’s a reason behind your preference, and it stems from who you are as a writer as much as who you are as a reader.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

9 Responses to Three Tips and a Reasonable Postponement

  1. Larry, if you told us you were on a beach in Jersey, we may feel sorry for you and accept your postponement, but Mali?! Can’t do it. 😉

    Anyway, I never thought to just read the opening paragraphs, but I will now. Thanks.

    Hey, some time back you recommended a book about a New York City reporter. Can’t remember the book or the author, but I remember it had one hell of an opening.

    Something along the lines of “I sell smut. I sell murder, drugs, mayham, etc” Do you remember this?

  2. Martha Miller

    Larry, my son and daughter-in-law are flying into Maui today. I’ll tell them to look for a tanned writer on the beach . . .
    I just checked out the audio version of “The Gate House” by DeMille from the library and couldn’t get beyond the first disc. Nothing happened, just a long ‘telling’ narrative in the way of set-up. I haven’t read DeMille before, and from this most recent post of yours, I presume that’s not his usual style. I’ll give him another try.

  3. Thank you, Larry – I’m so close to starting a new novel… I have a hook, the milestones, a killer character, a sub-plot and absolutely no idea how to begin. So I’m heading to the bookstore this evening to try this exercise and see what comes of it. As always, thank you. L L

  4. Diana

    Teachers wanted to picket because he alternated between 1st and 3rd? Apparently they were unfamiliar with a nifty little book by Charles Dickens – Bleak House.

    Thanks again for the great info you share.

  5. Bernice


    Thanks so much for the terrific specifics you give us all to improve our writing.

    Plum Island (the real one of which I read recently is for sale) made me a DeMille fan.

    In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson, an English writer, uses several third person POVs in a chapter, each usually with own scene, and a first person POV that occurs some 40 years earlier. Each POV may show up several times in the same chapter. This is a crime fiction book with several story lines that kept me engaged throughout and in agony the last 20-30 pages as the tension ratcheted up. The POVs kept the story alive on several levels I hadn’t experienced before.

  6. Monica

    “[The first scene] needs to kick-start the story by being about what the story as a whole is about.”

    This really put everything in perspective for me. Terrific, timely advice, as always. I’m working on my opening scene this week. Perfect.

    Someone just gave me The Lion’s Game. I’ll make a point to read it sooner rather than later.

  7. Thanks Larry, you could also look at books on using the search inside feature – you almost always get the opening chapters

  8. @Katie — that’s a TERRIFIC idea. Thanks for sharing. L.

  9. Patrick Sullivan

    Out of curiosity, how necessary is it to read Lion’s Game first? I’ve been meaning to read more thrillers to spread out my reading from my normal sci-fi/fantasy preference, and DeMille sounds interesting.