Monday, May 2, 2011

Opening Scenes and Making Choices

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.

“What happened?”

“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.”

“Dear God!”

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?


quantum said...

Janga, I don't think that either of these scenes would put me off reading further.

Exploring the tension and anxiety in friends and relatives when they know that the plane is missing but don't know that Saja survived, is good. Mental stress is just as compelling as the physical events and I wouldn't really describe the scene as 'quiet'.

But as Saja does survive, I think the first scene is better as an opening. The situation immediately after the crash appears to be a crucial part of the plot and is therefore more interesting to me as reader.

I could see the second scene as a prologue though. Setting the scene with the anxiety of uncertainty before details of the crash emerge.

On the whole, if possible I prefer the characters to be introduced a few at a time as its less strain on the memory when reading for pleasure. But if the characters are all familiar from an earlier book then that isn't a problem.

Thanks for sharing these snippets .... I like your style! *smile*

Anonymous said...

I agree that both scenes work, but I'm partial to the first one. It may seem to you as though it is "not quiet", because it involves a crash, but you don't present it in a crash-bang-special effects kind of way. :) I think it shows the concerns, and it gives me a character to latch onto as things unfold. I liked the second scene, but I wasn't quite sure who I should follow around. :)

You have a lovely writing style. :)


MsHellion said...

I'd follow either of these scenes. I see your point, but I sorta agree with Donna--I want to connect with the heroine as soon as possible, so I tend to prefer the first scene because it shows her character. I can see the first scene as the opener, and this second option a little further in as we realize it's taking a while to get word to the family.

Janga said...

Thanks, Q. That's one vote for the first scene.

As for the number of characters, I think it's a real challenge to write a book that pleases fans of a series and also works as a stand-alone for new readers. Working on books 2 & 3 is giving me a new appreciation for the skills of my favorite authors of series.

Janga said...

Donna, I don't think I could write in "a crash-bang-special effects kind of way" to save my life. LOL I don't even read many of those books. My sister and my brother, both voracious readers of thrillers, often accuse me of reading books where nothing happens. It is the characters and their relationships that interest me in reading and in writing.

Thanks for the kind words, and I've duly noted another vote for the first scene.

Janga said...

Hellie, you and the rest have persuaded me that I should go with the first scene. That was my instinctive choice, but those second thoughts always make me indecisive. Thanks for reading and responding.

irisheyes said...

I guess I'm with the majority here. The main reason would be so that I can connect to the hero and heroine, as Donna and Hellie said. I would have more of a vested interest in them seeing them first hand rather than hearing about them.

Both scenes are awesome, Janga. The second scene does pull at my series loving soul! I'm already anxious to know all about every character in that scene! LOL

MsHellion said...

Ah...see, women shouldn't question their instincts and yet we almost always seem to. :)

TerriOsburn said...

I haven't read the other comments so I can give my gut reaction first. I say start with the first scene up to the point "Then blackness enveloped her." Then I'd hop to the next scene, coming back to the first scene where you left off.

Now I'll see what everyone else thought and if you already have an answer. :)

TerriOsburn said...

Ah, I see I took option C. LOL! Well, you said you write them out of order so it seems like you can chop them anywhere necessary to make them work.

Janga said...

Thanks, Irish, my fellow series addict. LOL

I know I like characters from earlier books in the series reappearing when it seems reasonable for them to do so. And since Brody is the hero, I think I need to introduce him early on. He and Saja have a history.

Janga said...

Hellie, I think it's that logic vs. intuition battle. It feels like betraying the cause when we think we're being illogical. :)

Janga said...

Hmm, that's an idea I had not considered, Terri. Thanks. I'll try it and see.

Yes, my first draft is very fluid--just a collection of scenes, each labeled with some identifying phrase. Pulling it all together really is like piecing a quilt. I find I have scenes that don't fit the pattern and am missing bits that are essential to the finished product.

TerriOsburn said...

It's much easier to see options as the non-author. We're just too close to our own stuff. Happy to be of any service at all.

MsHellion said...

I agree with option C. I really like that one. Nice cliffhanger; still got the cast of characters to identify with--then we get to return to see Saja being all competent and heroic. :)