My writing process places me somewhere between a panster and a plotter. While I don’t actually plot, I do spend many hours writing character biographies that inevitably contain bits of what will happen to the characters during the course of the story. Then I start writing scenes, out of order and as they appear in my head. At some point I have a collection of scenes and a vague idea of how they fit together. It is then that the hardest part of creating a complete story begins for me. I have to put the scenes I have written in order and write the scenes that will stitch the bits and pieces together.
I am currently in this difficult stage with my second manuscript, “Who Says You Can’t go Home?” My immediate problem is deciding how to open the book. I have one scene that must come near the beginning that shows Saja Hamilton, the heroine, during and after a plane crash.
“We’re going down.”
Tula Shield’s shrill cry startled Saja Hamilton from the replay of yesterday’s conversation with Doug Hammersmith, director of the African division of Doctors on Mission. “You’re burned out,” he had said.
His words may have been prophetic. Saja saw the mountain out the window, and then the shadows of trees seemed to move toward her. She heard Abby sobbing.
“Merciful Jesus,” the pilot cried.
Ben, Saja thought . . . Brody. Then blackness enveloped her.
She moved cautiously. Everything seemed to be working, but she knew the stickiness on her face was blood. The silence was eerie. “Ben,” she paused. “Tula . . . Abby . . .” Nothing.
She had no idea where she was or how long it would be before someone realized the plane was missing. “I could die here.” Somehow saying those words aloud gave her the impetus to move. Where were the others? She feared what she would find, but not knowing was worse.
She heard a groan and looked around. Abby was lying on the ground a dozen feet to the left, huddled over her arm. “Abby, Can you hear me?” Saja knelt beside the tiny nurse.
“My arm—it’s broken—ribs too, I think.”
Compound fracture. Pale but no serious blood loss. Thank God it was the dry season, and the sun was still high in the sky. No need to worry about mosquitoes and other enemies darkness might bring. She could only pray help would arrive before night fell. “I’m going to look for the others. I won’t go far. “You’re OK, Abby. Help will be here soon.
Abby nodded, tears bright in her dark eyes, but she didn’t speak. They both knew the horrors Saja might find.
She considered the terrain, hilly but not mountainous. The plane might have been seen by a worker in a nearby banana grove. Or one of Luc Fardeau’s nurses on motorcycle might be in the area visiting a mobile hospital. Abby shouldn’t be moved until her arm could be splinted.
As thoughts collided in her head, Saja moved to the right, planning to circle the area. What was that spot of blue down the incline. Rushing forward, pushing her way through dense plants, she searched for the color that had caught her eye. Her foot twisted. Grabbing a tree trunk to keep from falling, she heard the sound of a waterfall. Then she saw him further down the hill.
“Ben, Ben, Ben!” Each cry was louder than the one before, but Ben didn’t stir. Oh, God, don’t let him be dead. Please. Saja felt for a pulse and breathed a prayer of gratitude when she found one. He wasn’t dead. His respiration rate was low, however. That and his unconsciousness were major concerns. He needed help, and she dared not move him. At the very least he had severe concussion. Maybe spinal injury.
“Lady, you need help?”
Thank God. An angel clothed in light could have been no more welcome than the Tanzanian farmer calling to her from the hill above.
The drama and action in this scene may catch a reader’s attention, but I worry that it may also give a false impression. I write quiet books with internal conflicts more complicated and central than external conflicts. I have another scene that I’m considering for my opening.
“Saja’s plane is missing.”
The voice cracked on the last word, paused a few seconds and continued. “This is Billy Joe Hamilton. I got a call a couple of hours ago. I guess I was listed as next of kin. I waited to call you and Zan, hoping . . .
Dori Marshall felt her world tilt. How could this be happening? Just at the moment when life seemed perfect.
“Dori, are you there?”
“Yes, yes, I’m here.” She felt Max at her back, his arms around her, and she let herself sink into his strength.
“She and Ben and two others were flying in for a week’s vacation in Moshi. Contact was lost with the plane not long after takeoff. A possible crash site has been identified from the air. That’s all we know now.”
“So they could be wrong? Or they could have survived. People do.”
“I pray they have.” Billy Joe’s tone said he feared the worst.
“I’m going to believe she’s OK.” Dori shut out all the doubts that were trying to creep in. “You’ll let me know when you hear anything?”
“I will. I need to call Zan—“
“She’s here. I’ll see that she knows.”
“Good. Good,” Billy Joe repeated himself more forcefully. “I’ll—I’ll keep in touch.” He hung up without waiting for Dori to reply.
Dori turned in Max’s arms to rest her head against his heart, reassured by the steady beat. She refused to believe that Saja was dead. Saja was a born survivor. She had come through earthquakes, floods, and revolutions. She’d come through this plane crash too.
Dori stuggled to push the words past the tightness in her throat. “They’ve lost contact with her plane. That was Billy Joe, her cousin, the one she’s closest to. I have to tell the others—Zan, Brody . . .”
Brody rarely asked about Saja, but Dori knew her brother well enough to know his indifference was a pose. She paused in the doorway of the dining room, grateful for Max’s hand in hers.
Everything looked so normal. Zan was threatening Brody with her fork as he stole a bite of chess pie. Lauren was laughing at them. Ali was offering her grandfather a piece of her cookie, and Emily was listening to Matthew’s description of his soccer game. Saja should be here too. Home. Safe. With those who loved her.
“Lauren," Max said, "why don’t you and I take Matt and Ali to see the new addition to the family?”
Lauren looked at her father in surprise, but she reached for Ali obediently. “Let’s go see the kitten, Ali.”
Ali clapped and Matt abandoned his grandmother in mid-sentence. Dori waited, watching Max and Lauren lead the children from the room, conscious of the four pairs of eyes that watched her, dreading what she might say.
“That was Billy Joe Hamilton on the phone. Saja’s plane is missing.”
Dori knew Zan’s’s words were prayer, not expletive. She watched her mother reach for her father’s hand.
“It had to happen sometimes,” Brody said savagely. They all jumped as his chair crashed to the floor.
“Brody,” Emily called after her son’s retreating back.
“Not now, Mom,” he said and kept going.
The second scene is more typical of my writing with its extended cast of characters and the focus on relationships. But I worry that it’s too quiet. Is there anything in this scene that will make a reader, especially one who hasn’t read the first book, care about these characters?
Maybe neither of these works as an opening scene, and I need to come up with something different from either.
What do you think? What do you look for in an opening scene? And, if you’re a writer, when do you write your opening scene?