Consider this line from the March/April 2012 issue ofWriter’s Digest, in a wonderful article titled “5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make” by Steven James: “Too many times a writer will grab readers’ attention early on with a scene that’s clearly been contrived just for that purpose. . .” This stuck to me like fly paper (and if you’ve ever dealt with fly paper, you know what that means). I’ve read more than one manuscript that included a big event at the beginning that felt sort of contrived and not in keeping with the body of the story. And yes, these have been my own first drafts, but never mind that.
The beginning of a novel sets up readers for what is to come, so it must be true to the whole of the story. Makes sense, right? At the same time, though, it's important to hook readers. The big, dramatic opener can be tempting for writers. Exciting scenes give immediate pay off and lure readers into a plot. An explosion (for example) can be exciting and riddled with tension and intrigue. It will probably snag readers attention and make them turn pages. However, if a novel begins with a bang, readers will expect the following pages to have lots to do with this boom. Even the tone and the pace of the novel may seem set. So, if the story turns out to be a quiet romance, there’s going to be some serious head-scratching going on. Maybe even reader disappointment and frustration at the realization that the explosion had been contrived. Sure, some sort of romance could bloom between those involved in the explosion, but the writer may have to do all kinds of construction to build the bridge between the explosion and the quiet romance. And readers may still be left disappointed. Sooner or later, a contrived scene is going to stick out.
For readers: Have you ever read a story with a contrived beginning scene? How did that work for you?
For writers: Have you ever written or been tempted to write in a big event at the beginning of a story to pull readers into it, even if the fit was awkward? Were you able to make the contrived scene compatible with the main thrust of the story?