Opening with a Narrative Scene

The Dakota Access Pipeline

Most of the nonfiction books that I write for school libraries open with a narrative scene. The Dakota Access Pipeline describes a series of young people introducting themselves and explaining what the river and local water access means to them. The Assassination of John F. Kennedy explains why he was in Dallas and then describes the motorcade passing through the plaza.

When I started writing the book on Kennedy, I knew what scene had to open the book. The book on the pipeline? That was much less obvious. In situations like that, it helps to understand how the narrative scene functions.

A narrative scene brings the story alive for the reader. In this case, I chose to give voice to people who are the same age as the reader. That is a more natural hook than trying to draw them to the story of someone who is unlike thenselves.

The Assassination of John F. Kennedy

Narrative scenes are also full of sensory detail that pulls the reader into the story. It hooks them and keeps them reading. That means that you want to open with something that provides the right kinds of details. That might mean selecting a scene that is sensational – an animal trapped in the mud, likely to become a fossil. Or I might write about a ball game with captive warriors playing in a Mayan arena.

In cases when the opening isn’t obvious, I move forward and outline the book. As I research and contemplate, I uncover story after story. With each revelation, I ask myself, “Is this the one?” Sometimes I have to try one or two to find one that is a good fit.

Other times I have to see complete a rough outline so that I know what information is going into the last chapter. That way I can select an opening narrative that creates a circular structure. The scene has to hook the reader but it has to fit into the book as a whole.

If at first you don’t succeed . . . sigh and try again. That’s where I am with my current project but that’s okay. Every scene that doesn’t work brings me that much closer to one that will.


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