Time was when a book opened with vivid descriptions of the story’s setting. Alas, those days have passed like… the word alas.

Recently, I sent Rebecca LuElla Miller (Rewrite, Reword, Rework) the opening to my latest novel, Deception’s Tower, and like always, her feedback inspired me. Rebecca knows stuff. Below is the conversation I had with her via email regarding character and setting development in the opening scene.

Me: “Becky, for Deception’s Tower, I thought since the setting was so unfamiliar to my readers I would open with a sweeping chariot ride through the country side and into the city. But you stuck a spear in Namah’s chariot wheel, haha. Why, oh why?”

Becky: “I have a friend who feels as you do. She loves the old stories that started with a panoramic of the setting and narrowed down to the one town, house, person. The problem is, so many readers are impatient these days. BUT, if you can make it work, then others might start copying you and there could be a revival of that type of writing. I think it’s extremely hard to pull something like that off. You’re essentially trying to make them care for something inanimate, and that goes against our nature. We care about a city because we went there as little children with our parents, or our husband proposed there, or we won a trip there for a vacation, or something else notable happened. Readers care about the story place because they care about the story character. And by care, I mean they’re invested in the character and what to find out what happens next. They won’t get invested in that way if they hate the character. They need to identify in some way.”

Me: “Weeell, for this story there is an additional problem. I have been told my character has to be likeable – and darn it – Namah just doesn’t care whether you like her or not. But she does care about her city, and she worships her father. So I thought starting with that sweep of the city would give them insight into her heart. Where did I go wrong?”

Becky: “You did show a strong voice — I had the sense of a young woman who is proud of her father and the respect he has, of her home, and even of her people. You’ve used some beautiful description and some noteworthy lines, such as it races swift as evening’s shadows. It also seems as if you’ve done a considerable amount of research. I have the sense that this is quite authentic and true to life. But… you have to catch your readers early on, and connect them with your character. Show them what she wants so they can be in her corner and cheer her on to success or worry over her bad choices and failures.”

Me: “And if she’s basically a power-hungry, spoiled twit who can’t discern good character – what then? How the heck do I get my readers to stick with the stubborn girl?”

Becky:For me, getting the character right is the hardest thing. I just had a crit partner tell me yesterday that my main character comes across as self-centered and immature. And honestly, that’s the way he is. But showing the flaws must not keep readers from connecting with him. They don’t have to like him so much as identify with him, believe he’s acting rationally and reasonably, in a way they understand and might even find justifiable. So apply that to your story. Can you make Namah’s behavior seem understandable, even reasonable, to the point that readers can see themselves at least being tempted to act as she is acting? I think that’s the key.”

Me: “Ah, that totally makes sense, and encourages me. I don’t want this girl to come across in the beginning as someone who’s got it all down. She sees what she thinks is best and no one is going to convince her anything else will work. Namah charges like an avalanche toward destruction. But isn’t that how we all are to some extent? People were telling me I had to make her noble in some way. I don’t want her to be noble. I want her to be… painfully honest. That’s Namah. Thanks, Becky!”

How about you? What’s your favorite opening in a novel?