Openings Are Invitations: by Molly Noble Bull
Remember those birthday party invitations we all got as children? One that I recall had a cowboy on the cover, signaling that the party had a cowboy theme, and I will never forget what was written on the inside of that card. I call the cowboy on the cover a sort of hook, encouraging friends to attend special events, but the meat of the invitation was found inside.
The W Rule
What do party invitations have to do with writing chapter and scene openings? More than you might think. To make my point, below is an example of a typical birthday invitation.
Who? Tom Brown
What? His tenth birthday party
When? Saturday, September 25, 2009
Where? 308 Creek Drive, Rockdale, Texas
Why? Because we want to celebrate Tom’s birthday, that’s why.
Like the cowboy on the cover of party invitations, every chapter should begin and end with a hook, and every chapter and scene should start with a problem. However, successful chapter openings and scene changes are identical in many ways to the format used in writing party invitations.
As an author, my goal is to invite the reader to a party of words, my words. In order to do that, I must send him or her an invitation answering all the who, what, when, where and why questions--henceforth known as the W rule.
A full-bodied sentence is one that answers the W rule questions, but writing full-bodied sentences at the beginning of every chapter and scene opening might not be the best way to coax readers to taste one’s work. However, I have learned that when I include the information found in the full-bodied sentence, my scene openings become more inviting to the reader.
The man went to town is a simple sentence, but it can become full-bodied. To answer the “who” question, I gave the man a first and last name, Jim Cooper. Jim Cooper went to town. Naming my character improved the quality of my sentence, but more information must be added for it to became full-bodied.
The full-bodied sentence below answers all the W rule questions. Here’s how.
(When?) “Early on an October morning, (Who?) Jim Cooper (Where?) left his small farm in rural Mississippi and (How?) drove his team of mules (Where?) to Oakton Corners (Why?) to buy medicine for (What is the problem?) his sick wife and child.”
“How” is also an emotional question and optional. The reader might also want to know “what” the weather is like? The final version of this sentence, answers the “how” question and tells about the weather. “Early on a (What is the weather?) cold, windy morning in late October and (How is his emotional state?) trembling with worry, Jim Cooper left his small farm in rural Mississippi and drove his team of mules to Oakton Corners to buy medicine for his sick wife and child.
Openings vs. Scene Changes
Every novel is divided into three parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end. The beginning part of a novel ends when all the W rule questions have been answered. These questions can be answered easily in one full-bodied sentence. However, it often takes several pages for that same information to flow smoothly into the text.
Scene changes are different from chapter openings in that all the beginning questions need not be answered a second time. For example, if the reader knows all about Jim Cooper, scene two could begin with “An hour later, he finally got to town.”
All my manuscripts don’t have a cowboy on the cover to hook the reader, but I never fail to issue invitations. I have learned that when I invite the reader to choose my novels by beginning with a hook and a problem and then answering all the questions listed above, readers attend my parties and read my books.