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03:43 pm: Wright's Writing Corner: Open Active


This purely decorative picture
demonstrates the opposite of an active opening.



Next in our series of posts expanding on my Writing Tips list, we have:

 

Open active:              Start scene changes underway and then explain how you got there…unless change significant.

 

First: what do I mean by openings? In this case, I mean the beginnings to new scenes and chapters. Much of this could also be applied to first lines, but first lines have additional issues weighing upon them. So, for the most part, I am talking about internal openings—how to start after a scene change.

 

Second: what do I mean by opening actively. An active opening is when you start your scene in the middle of the action, when something interesting is already going on, instead of with a bridging scene that connects the previous scene to the next scene.

 

Active openings are also called In Medias Res, which, for the Latin Illiterate (like myself) is a phrase meaning something like “in the middle of the affair.”

 

Just to make sure we are all on the same page, here are two examples of openings—one active, one not:

 

1)         The next day, we rose early and washed the car. After that, we headed down Route 66.

 
2)         “He’s gaining on us! Step on it!” Carly yelled. She hung half out the passenger window,
             so that when I swerved around the rolling oil drum, she nearly fell out of the car.

 

 

Why is an active beginning interesting? Two reasons: the active opening sentence is often more interesting in and of itself. (See above.) Second, it raises questions: what is going on? Why is this happening? Who is chasing them? The more questions the reader has—assuming that they have faith that the author will provide answers—the more eager the reader is to read on.


There is another benefit as well. Starting in the middle often makes the whole scene more interesting. It tends to jump right to the exciting part, skipping the lead up. This helps keep the scene on track and moving quickly.

 

The key to the active opening is two things: picking an arresting scene and filling in the gap.

 

Picking an arresting scene: Picking a scene that will draw the reader’s interest requires that you think out the events you want to have happen and pick a moment from it that is early enough that the main action has not happened yet, and yet far enough along that the action has already begun.

 

The action does not need to have fully begun. In the above example, instead of starting with the chase, I could have started with:

 

“There’s a red Honda following us.” Carly leaned out the window, her hand shading her eyes. “Does that mean anything to you?”

 

This beginning is also active—far more active than beginning one. But it requires less explanation for the reader to grasp how the main characters reached this spot. Which leads us to our second point.

 

Filling in the gaps: Jumping in the middle of the scene means you have to take at least a moment to go back and explain what happen between the previous scene and the current action—how the characters got to the exciting predicament they are in now. Usually, this is done by a mini-flashback in the first few paragraphs of the new scene. You do not want to wait too long, as the readers will feel a sense of puzzlement that will interfere with their enjoyment. So, unless the way the character got there is a secret you are withholding for a good reason, you want to get that out of the way quickly.

 

The key to a good active opening is being able to do this elegantly. Going back to our example one above, it may be important that the characters washed their car. If so, include it in the mini-flashback.

 

            “Cutting hard to the right to avoid the oncoming truck, I barreled through a puddle, splashing mud all over our newly washed car.”

 

Or even:

 

            “I cut hard to the right, avoiding an oncoming truck. We had risen early this morning so we could wash the car before setting out. At the time, it had not occurred to us that they might find us during the trip, so we had not brought our weapons. If they caught us, all we had to defend ourselves with was my little brother’s soccer cleat that he left in the car by mistake and an old umbrella.”

 

 When do you use an active opening? Basically, whenever you can. Action is more interesting than static. Which leads to the next question: when do you not open actively? There are a number of instances when an active opening is not desirable. Among others, they include: complexity of events jumped, subject of scene, and variation.

 

Complexity: if many events have taken place since the last scene, it may be impossible to write a quick, elegant mini-flashback. It is easy to cover getting up and washing the car, or flying into town and going shopping before heading to the rendezvous, but if the villains showed up, killed the main characters cat, burnt down his house, and  kidnapped his mother-in-law before the big fight scene, that is a little harder to sum-up.


Basically, the rule of thumb is: if the explanation of how they got there is so long or awkward as to slow down the current scene, you would probably be better off writing the events in chronological order.

 

Scene Subject: If the subject the scene is not active, there is no point in confusing the reader by starting in the middle. A quiet walk in the garden with the family cat (before the villains arrive to off the dear critter*) does not need an active beginning. While it would still be nice to open with an interesting or evocative line, it does not need to be in medias res.


Variation: Even if all your scenes have dramatic action (while walking in the garden with the cat, the main character activates a trip wire that opens a trap door dropping him into the center of a fight going on in the underground headquarters of the villain) it is sometimes nice to start a scene with a description or a gentle moment merely for the sake of variation. Readers need breathers as well as action. A moment taken sniffing the hyacinths and feeling the breeze that is ruffling the cat’s fur can make the surprise drop into the busy secret headquarters even more unexpected.

 

How much breather vs. action—how many scenes to open in the midst of things vs. otherwise—depends upon your genre. For instance, a romance might be likely to have more gentle scene openings than a thriller.

 

In closing, starting your scenes with a bang helps jumpstart your readers into the scene, compelling them to keep reading. Then—so long as you have a compelling middle and end on another bang—your story will be irresistible.  

 

 

*Do not fear, Dear Cat Lovers, our feline heroine is not daunted by this turn of events. She either uses one of her nine lives to come back or continues helping the hero as a ghost. Thus her feline ability to appear in the midst of the chase scene, leap out of the moving car, pass through the windshield of the pursuing car--due to her ghostly state--and claw the villain in the face. Bet he never saw that one coming!
 



Comments

[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:April 28th, 2010 08:10 pm (UTC)
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res means "things" so literally it means "in the middle of things."

But I would not use your fourth paragraph. Going into past perfect that quickly, that much, means the backstory takes over. I would probably have started it when they decided not to take their weapons. Perhaps they took them out of the car to wash it and then decided not to put them back. Or I would just have one of them say, "I knew we should have packed the weapons," perhaps to the counter, "You didn't say so."

[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:April 28th, 2010 08:19 pm (UTC)
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These are very quick examples. Not taken from any actually work. Don't use them at home folks.

But you bring up a very good point...which is that dialogue can be used to help fill in the backstory, so as not to slow down the action.

(Yeah, I wouldn't use something so convoluted either. My first example was shorter, but the cleats amused me. Another humor related writing accident.)
[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:April 28th, 2010 09:11 pm (UTC)

Definitely Useful

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I stumbled on this idea recently and have found it to be really useful. Half the time it makes me the realize that the details I would normally have led in with (using an "inactive" opening) were not even necessary. It's an easy way to cut out unnecessary stuff. Plus it hones your ability to say more with fewer words: you don't have the whole opening section to describe some boring set-up, you've only got a few quick flash-back sentences or stuff worked into character dialogue.

I've found that using an active opening makes ME as the writer more interesting in the story, more imaginative and less likely to get stuck. Inactive leads also tend to choke my creativity and make me write like I'm describing a long, boring, laundry list of events.
From:anitaclenney
Date:April 28th, 2010 10:07 pm (UTC)
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great blog. openers are such an important part of writing, whether the opener for the book or a chapter or a scene. I always start my books with action and I try to start scenes with action as well, if it fits. I have to make myself not give too much detail up front. It's hard to find the line between revealing too much and not enough.
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:April 29th, 2010 02:25 am (UTC)
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You will reveal too much for some readers and not enough for others. You're aiming for the middle crowd.
From:ladyhobbit
Date:April 29th, 2010 03:45 am (UTC)

A favorite opening line . . .

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"The building was on fire, and it was not my fault."
Jim Butcher--Blood Rites, I think.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:April 29th, 2010 11:56 am (UTC)

Re: A favorite opening line . . .

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Ah, Butcher. Author of one of my all time favorite lines:

"He spocked an eyebrow."
[User Picture]
From:dirigibletrance
Date:May 1st, 2010 07:43 am (UTC)

Re: A favorite opening line . . .

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I can only start one of his books on a Saturday, because I know I won't be able to stop until I'm done.
From:ladyhobbit
Date:May 2nd, 2010 03:42 am (UTC)

Re: A favorite opening line . . .

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Sad but true! I was trying to save a couple of them for later, but I just couldn't do it. Now I've finished the latest one and have to wait for a whole year. Sigh.

Of course, I'm also waiting for the next Prospero book! Hint, hint.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:May 2nd, 2010 01:53 pm (UTC)

Re: A favorite opening line . . .

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It's on it's way. I got the cover burb for it yesterday. It should be out in August.
From:ladyhobbit
Date:May 3rd, 2010 01:45 am (UTC)

Re: A favorite opening line . . .

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That's awesome news! I hope it will be out in time for my vacation! I'll get ready to preorder!
[User Picture]
From:gingersea
Date:April 29th, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC)

Re: A favorite opening line . . .

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That's a wonderful opening line! It gives me a smile, a sense of urgency, and a desire to read more, all at the same time.
From:ext_233062
Date:April 29th, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)

Good info

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You hear a lot about how to open your story, but it's great for you expand and discuss how to open other chapters and scenes. This is rarely discussed.
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