We think of books as being about words, but they’re really about images. At the beginning of a story, a powerful image can create a world in our minds. It can unify the characters and the theme, and it can reinforce those elements as the writer comes back around to variations on that image during the course of the story. Like an alliteration, it makes us sit up and take notice of what the author is trying to convey.
As I’ve often mentioned in my blog, many of my ideas about structure have come from my years as a screenwriter. One important lesson I learned came from Linda Seger’s book, Making a Good Script Great. She talks about beginning a script with a central image, one that sets up the story’s world and ressonates with us emotionally. The example she uses is from the movie Witness.
Witness begins with a group of Amish – men, women, and children – crossing a field of wheat waving in the wind. The image is gorgeous and serene. Carriages appear on the road, and it soon becomes clear that the community is gathering. It’s not until we go inside a farmhouse that we learn why. A funeral is taking place. People are grieving. A man is speaking to them in Pennsylvania Dutch, so we don’t understand what he’s saying. We don’t know who has died or why, but that’s not important yet. Our focus is on the sense of community.
Community is a central theme of the movie, and it’s set up nicely in this scene. We later see the contrast between the pastoral Amish and the evils of the big city. This polarity is developed throughout the movie until the image of community that was set up at the beginning of the film becomes essential to the climax. Even the setting, the grain in the field, becomes part of the climatic battle between Harrison Ford and the simple Amish, and the evildoers from the city.
In my own book Goddess, I set up an initial scene that showed how central marriage and family is to Julia Nelson’s life. She and her husband are having sex. Even though we don’t see or hear from their children yet, they’re still present because Julia is careful to be quiet so they don’t hear.
And yet, we also see in this scene that domesticity isn’t as blissful as it’s often portrayed. The sex is routine and not satisfying for Julia. It leaves her feeling confused. Even though she doesn’t know it yet, she longs for the inextricable passion that’s symbolized by the tattoo on her ankle.
When you’re writing your novel, take the time to think about how your opening scene can set up the theme you’ll explore. Make it subtle – you shouldn’t hit your readers over the head with your grand ideas. What you’ve planted will echo throughout your story, and make it deeper and more meaningful.