Plot Fixer – Part 2: How To Fix A Weak Opening

Writers In The Storm welcomes back Kara Lennox, a.k.a. Karen Leabo for some more plot-fixing magic.

Kara is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than sixty novels of romance and romantic suspense for Harlequin and Random House.

OMG, excuse the interruption, but I just realized we hadn’t posted Kara’s BIG news!  She is NOT just a 2012 RITA Finalist – she’s a DOUBLE RITA Finalist!

So listen up, Peeps, she knows what she’s talking about!

You can read Kara’s blogs here at WITS on the first Friday of each month.  Don’t miss out, stop by every month and get your plot fix.

By Kara Lennox

Are you ready to fix your plot?

This is the second in a series of blogs based on my “Plot Fixer” workshop. I’m attacking the seventeen most common problems—based on my years of rejections, contest judging, and critiquing. Last month, we discussed Plot Problem #1: Your Premise Isn’t Compelling

Plot Problem #2: A cute meet does not a plot make.

It’s essential to have a riveting opening scene. Whether it’s the scene where your hero and heroine meet, or another scene involving your central character in some kind of trouble, you must present at least one problem.

Conflict on every page–that’s the mantra of super-agent and writing guru Donald Maass. However, it’s also essential that the first scene suggest what this book is about. That scene has to set the tone and even plant the seeds of future conflict.

A mistake I see often is a hum-dinger of a first scene, complete with conflict, sparkling dialogue and all sorts of problems. But then the story drops off, and the scene seems to have no relation to the rest of the plot. It serves only as a cute way to get the hero and heroine together or otherwise suck the reader into the book.

Example: The hero and heroine are both eager to buy a certain toy for their respective children for Christmas. But the store has only one left, and they both grab it at the same time. Witty banter ensues, but eventually one of them wins.

The hero invites the heroine to dinner. They go to dinner and get to know each other … she has some kind of legal problem and he is a lawyer and offers to help her out … and they work … together … to … solve …. ARE YOU ASLEEP? I am.

A cute meet has to go somewhere.

If you’re going to have a first scene where the hero and heroine are arguing about a toy, make darn sure the overall story has something to do with children and parenting. Maybe the hero is a single dad under fire from child welfare, and the heroine is the social worker who must investigate him. To make the meeting less coincidental, maybe the child somehow motivated both of them to get the toy. Shoot, I’m just making this up on the fly!

For a romance, it’s really best if the hero and heroine are brought together for the first time by something other than a chance meeting. (We’ll talk more about coincidence and chance on another day.)

One more example: HELL WEEK by Rosemary Clement-Moore is a YA paranormal about a girl with psychic powers who must fight the evil that has infiltrated a college sorority (also spun into a successful series). The first scene is a rush party. The author focuses on the snobbery, the pretention, the cruelty, and the blinding white teeth–evil, certainly–but also a hint of the other-worldly evil the heroine will eventually uncover.

A little later, the author writes about the heroine’s reunion with her love interest, which was also filled with conflict and great dialogue, and romance is an integral part of this book. But because this is a book about sororities, she opened–brilliantly–with the rush scene.

Another technique I’ve seen—and I personally don’t like it at all, though I’ve seen it in published books—is to open your novel with the climax. Then you flash back to reveal the story of how the protagonist got him/herself into such a dire situation. It can work, but I think it’s lazy. If the real opening of your story is so dull that you have to mine some other part of it for an exciting first page, rethink your story!

Look at your first scene.

  • Does it grab the reader, thrusting the protagonist into some trouble?
  • Is there conflict, either obvious, or implied future conflict? If it meets these criteria, analyze farther.
  • How does your first scene relate to the rest of the story?
  • Does it set the stage, establish the right tone, or hint at what’s to come?

Plot Problem #3: Starting in the Wrong Place

This problem relates back to my previous blog, which talked about boring beginnings. But it is so common it deserves a number all its own.

This is something new writers often do. They start too early.

They want to lay the groundwork, to offer up some backstory, so they start with the heroine in a car, or in the bathtub, THINKING about what has happened in her life and what is about to happen. No, please no. Start in medias res, in the middle of things.

You want to start at the moment of change. Depending on the story, sometimes it is okay to set the scene. The Hero’s Journey (read up on Joseph Campbell if you are unfamiliar with this) requires the hero to be in his normal world at first–think Luke Skywalker on his aunt and uncle’s boring farm, longing for excitement. But in a modern novel, this is usually very short or not there at all.

I once attended a Donald Maass intensive weekend workshop, and he got volunteers to read the opening line of their novel. Then he asked the class if they would keep reading. If the majority said yes, the volunteer read the next line. And again, we were asked if we wanted to continue hearing more of the story. For most of the volunteers, this experience was extremely humbling, as interest dropped off quickly.

Donald Maass says no back-story for the first twenty pages. None. The idea is to give your reader some credit. She will either go along with you, figuring the back-story will eventually be explained, or she will feel challenged to try to figure out what is going on. Either way, it’s all good. So long as you don’t hopelessly confuse the reader, you’re okay.

If you are guilty of extensive scene-setting and back-story-dump, very often you can simply lop off the first chapter and start with chapter two. (My second published book, I had to do this. In my first version, the heroine was on a plane headed for the Virgin Islands, ruminating about what had brought her there. In the second version, she was already in the islands, waiting on the dock for her scuba instructor to show up, when a cold, wet hand comes out of the water and grabs her ankle.)

Whatever was in chapter one that you absolutely must include, you can filter in as needed. Learning to feed in needed facts about back-story and setting is an art. Motivate the reader to read on to find out what the terrible dark secret is in the hero’s past, or the humiliating incident from the heroine’s high school days.

One more time, look at your opening.

  • Does it start where conflict begins?
  • Does it start with a call to adventure?
  • Does it at least start with your protagonist in some kind of trouble?

Now, look at the first sentence of your novel (or come up with one now). If read aloud in a roomful of avid readers, would they want to hear more? Would you want to post it publicly? Post it here, if you want.

Something else you can try: Experiment with starting your book in a different place. Could you move forward or backward in the timeline just a bit, to start at a place of higher conflict?

Next time, we’ll talk about how to advance your plot through your character’s goals.

Don’t miss Kara’s latest book, Outside The Law  (part of the Project Justice series for Harlequin Super Romance) and her soon to be re-released classic Bantam Loveswept novels, written as Karen Leabo.

Kara’s website

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45 Responses to Plot Fixer – Part 2: How To Fix A Weak Opening

  1. Thanks for this amazing post, Kara. I am unpublished and write both WF with elements of romance and romantic suspense. Currently, I am submitting an upmarket WF and have begun writing another. If I might “cheat” just a bit, I would like to give you the opening of each. The book I am submitting:
    I was certain something lethal was about to hurl through space and split me in two. As it turned out, Ben didn’t need a ballistic missile or a grenade launcher, he only needed a piece of notepaper.

    And the book I began two days ago:
    In the twenty-first century, fifty became the new forty, or it was the boomer’s final rebellion against the ravages of time. No matter. It is a painful process to claw up the wall of the fifth decade.

    I also think I need to do some heavy re-thinking about my romantic suspense. I fall into the trap of “explaining” or talking too much (but I guess you can see that) and need to fight the urge. I will look forward to each of your posts every first Friday and thank you for being a guest on my favorite group blog🙂

    • karalennox says:

      Hi, Ramblings!
      Re: the first paragraph: You certainly don’t waste any words on backstory. You’ve gotten right into the meat. My preference would be to spend one-two sentences setting the scene before you get to this. Maybe start with what she sees that makes her believe something very bad is about to happen. It does make me want to read on, definitely.

      As for the second paragraph, it frankly it doesn’t do much for me. My first thought was, “Twenty-first century. Science fiction!” Then, “Oh, crap, this IS the twenty-first century.” After readjusting my expectations, I kept reading. Fifty is the new forty is not news, and I wasn’t sure about the “boomer’s rebellion” part, because I’m not sure what “it” refers to. Then I got to the fifth decade sentence, and I had to stop and think, “The fifth decade. That’s between forty and fifty. So if she hasn’t gotten to fifty yet, how is “fifty became the new forty” even apply?” So I was just confused. I am easily confused, but so are a lot of other people. Sorry!

      Thanks for commenting and putting yourself out there!

      Kara

      • Yikes, what great feedback is this? Thanks for taking so much time to critique. The first was a quick intro to the actual note and I knew it would have a better impact if it just happened with out intro. I didn’t think it was fair to send that as well. They are actually four quick sentences that set up the entire conflict in the book.

        The second one is so new I can do anything at all with it. Your comments will help me refocus and be clearer about what call she is climbing🙂 I appreciate your generosity.

  2. gotghost says:

    Ohhhh, you are speaking directly to me this morning. I was working on an old book last night (all night long in my sleep) and had decided that what really bothers me about the book is the beginning. It’s gone. It’s gotta go. I think I broke all the rules, including the Maass “no backstory” rule. It’s going to be huge work, but on the other hand, I feel like I have direction and that’s nice. Thank you.

    • karalennox says:

      You’re welcome! It is painful, and if it makes you feel any better, I’m getting ready to do it to my WIP. Still can’t figure out how/where to start, but I know what I have is weak.

      Kara

  3. LauraDrake says:

    Oh Kara, I had to do this — with my third novel. Jenny read it, then looked across the table at me with her ‘are you serious?’ stare. She told me, “We don’t care.” But wait! this is really wonderful, because I’ve just gotta tell them — “We. Don’t.Care.” Man, her polite little smile didn’t get anywhere near her eyes.

    Jenny is not mean. She had to slap me around because I was in love with my first scene, and I was blowing her off. But she was right. It about killed me, but I cut that. Much better book! I live in fear of meeting those eyes over the table again (thank you Jen,) so I’m saving all your wonderful tips!

    Now, no backstory for 20 PAGES?!!!! Oh, no, I have to have it in there, because I just gotta tell them . . .😉

    • karalennox says:

      Laura–LOL, it’s not a hard and fast rule. Many authors open with backstory–brilliantly. (Just check out ONE FOR THE MONEY by Janet Evanovich.) But you shouldn’t do it without really thinking about it. In general, if you can postpone telling backstory for a bit, it strengthens the opening, keeping that reader invested in the here-and-now.

      Kara

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      To my credit, I think my first question was, “Why should we care about ____?” But yes, then I slapped her around. And would ya look at our pal Laura NOW. She’s ROCKIN’ the fiction.🙂

  4. Very nice info, Kara. I’m wondering, would all of these points apply also to memoir?

    • karalennox says:

      Robin–
      A good memoir will read like a novel. But a memoir is kind of by definition all backstory! I think you have to open a memoir with a scene that is a pivotal moment in your life something that shapes the life somehow. And IMO it should be written as if you’re there, now, and it’s the opening of a story. Memoirs can suffer from a lack of immediacy. Something in the opening has to convince the reader that this is a person whose life is worth reading about.

      Kara

  5. Jann says:

    Kara,
    Again, another great post and it came at a perfect time for my current WIP.

  6. Kara, thank you – I don’t think I would pass the Maas task. Sometimes, even though it isn’t backstory, it isn’t good to start in the heart of the conflict. In my memoir I started with my father’s first visit (incest scene) – people said it was a bit too rough, that they needed to feel for the little girl, so I start at age seven with a game of tag with neighborhood boys and say, “I get so tired of boys games.” Then I turn into my father’s boys games – there are a few hints that things aren’t great, but it isn’t in your face.

    • karalennox says:

      Heather–
      That sounds like a reasonable way to open. And I think the emotional contrast, from the innocence of childhood play to the horror of incest, will make the scene even more impactful.

      Kara

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  9. What a great post! Thanks for all of the advice. Heading over to Kara’s blog.

  10. Yvette Carol says:

    Brilliant Kara! Wow, I read this and then had to go back and read your first post on plot fixing too!! I’m really intrigued by the different levels to figuring out plot. Structure I’ve realized is my achilles heel. As of today I’ve finished my latest writing course. I am about to dive headfirst into rewriting my book. This gives me something to get my teeth into and think about before I make some giant mistakes. Ha ha. Thanks again.🙂
    Yvette Carol

  11. karalennox says:

    Hello, allthingsboys and Yvette. Thanks for stopping by, glad you enjoyed the post. I’m about to dive headfirst into a new book, I am so ready!

    Kara

  12. Laurie says:

    Great info here! I need to apply some of this to my first chapter.

    • karalennox says:

      Laurie–
      Knowing it is one thing, applying it is another! I still struggle with plot, probably always will. That’s why I’ve become such a student of plotting, then a teacher. It fascinates me and frustrates me.

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  14. Really great suggestions. Thank you for coming here and sharing with us.

  15. Barbara DeLong says:

    I really, really try not to dump a bunch on backstory right off – but 20 pages?? I’ll be eating a lot of chocolate getting there! Thanks for a great post!

    • karalennox says:

      I hear ya, Barbara. I just started a new book and the first chapter is loaded with backstory! It’s so bad, I’m considering a prologue. Sometimes that is a viable solution.

  16. Great post – thanks for sharing!

  17. DuvallDesign says:

    Great advice, Kara! And so true. Bottom line is that first lines, firs paragraphs, first pages are a bear to get right. They require many rewrites. As for backstory, I think there’s myriad opinions about this and it depends on the genre and the book, and how the backstory is handled. My agent and my Harlequin editor both insist on having backstory presented early, but in moderation. I like to hit the ground running in my beginnings, but my agent and I sometimes disagree because she prefers a slower start. We work it out eventually.🙂 I write urban fantasy.

    I know I’ll have to rewrite the beginning of the dystopian novella i just turned in, but right now the first paragraph is: I stared out my apartment window at the heat-glazed street below, knowing I shouldn’t be shocked to see brown lawns, charred rooftops and the sun-scorched branches of leafless trees in the middle of January. But I was. I’d never get used to a hot winter in Colorado.

    So any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    • karalennox says:

      DuvallDesign–
      i like that opening! It really makes you want to read on, to find out why it’s hot in winter in Colorado. The situation implies a problem, challenges to be faced, etc. (My first thought is climate change, but of course I could be wrong.) Of course, from there I would want to move right along to some action, some goal for the character (even if it’s getting to work on time or finding clean clothes).

      Rules are meant to be broken! it all totally depends on how it’s handled.

      • DuvallDesign says:

        Thanks, Kara.🙂 Yep, it’s weather related. It goes into a scene that involves getting her father to bed because he needs help due to his mental problems that are indirectly caused by the weather. So there’s no wool-gathering here. I appreciate the feedback. Thanks so much.

        Karen Duvall

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  19. Arisa says:

    I just kind of stumbled upon this. Thanks for the wonderful post! I always struggle with how to begin, but I indeed found that just starting somewhere in the middle helps.

    Here’s the start of a first draft of my story:

    A dull sound echoed through the silent room. Tim turned to the hallway; he figured it came from that way. He was alone at the moment in this strange, but familiar house. His friend was making some snacks and preparing tea for his visit. Slowly Tim stood up from the couch. What would’ve made that noise?

    (In this story I pretty much don’t explain anything for a long while, because Tim doesn’t know it either. Pretty much keeping the reader and Tim on the same level as far as knowledge goes.)

    • karalennox says:

      Hi, Arisa, glad you stumbled in!

      I like your opening. I think the experience of hearing a strange noise in a supposedly empty house is a universal experience, one everyone can relate to. It produced a visceral reaction in me (maybe I’m particularly scared of strange house noises!). I was thrown off a little by “this strange but familiar house;” I stopped to ponder how that could be. Also–is he alone in the room, rather than alone in the house? Because it sounds like his friend is just a short distance away (in the kitchen) but still in the house. So maybe, “He was alone in the room; his friend had gone to the kitchen to get some snacks for Tim’s visit.” Or something like that.

      Kara

      • Arisa says:

        Thanks so much for the reply and tip!! You’re right about it being a bit confusing when I read it like that. Probably because it is stated afterward that he’s at a friend’s house. I should definitely make that more clear.

  20. Kara,
    I’m following your plot fixer series with great interest.
    I’m currently working on my first epic fantasy and have had to rethink my opening several times. In early drafts, I started in media res, but too late it turned out (too many unanswered questions). Then I played with a prologue and realized that was just me being lazy and trying to tell too much. I thought I had a solution in keeping with my plot and timeline, but my online critique group helped me to realize what my major problem was: my protagonist’s initial scenes were filled with conflict, but none of it related to the plot (!) So now I’m ramping up my protagonist’s scenes with the major plot line in mind. I’m hoping that this time I’ll get it right🙂
    I’ve read elsewhere that conflict without purpose is a cheat, and it’s so true. You do have to have conflict on every page, but it has to be relevant conflict, or the reader’s going to feel like you’re wasting their time. Epiphany moment🙂
    Wish me luck!
    Melanie Marttila

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  26. This entry just gave me an idea of how to rewrite the beginning of my MG novel. I jotted notes as reading and had an “aha!” moment. Thanks so much.

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