Pub Rants

That Non-Gripping Plane Opening

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STATUS: Prep time. I have a trip to New York and RWA fast approaching so it’s time to set up my appointments.

What song is playing on the iPod right now? WALKING ON SUNSHINE by Katrina and The Waves

I’m convinced that one cannot be unhappy while this song is playing—that it’s literally physically impossible to be so because your foot is tapping uncontrollably.

Last night I had a chance to read the partials that Sara had set aside for me. I think there were eight or so. Out of that eight, three of the partials all had airplane openings—as in the main character is sitting in a seat on an airplane and flying somewhere. Usually there is an overly large person in the seat next to him or her.

I’ve seen this a lot recently. Enough to rant about it.

Hum… not very gripping. Why? Because there is nowhere to go from here. Unless you are doing the screenplay for SNAKES ON A PLANE, not much is going to happen in this opening scene because the real conflict (and any events that will convey it) will come when the character has reached the intended destination.

Basically, it’s a scene where the main character is discomfited by lack of space. Although I can greatly sympathize (I’m flying to New York in three weeks after all), it’s not gripping.

I’ve seen a couple of partials where the main protagonist was afraid of flying and the scene was probably meant to show the intensity or importance of having the character take this step (but is the fear of flying an essential character trait that must be revealed?). Not if it doesn’t play a role anywhere else in the novel.

Besides, I’m so bored by the opening scene, chances are good I won’t be reading further to find out.

Now I imagine that it is possible for a writer to create an absolutely thrilling opening plane scene (as it is about to crash or because the main character is a Federal Marshall, or something like that), I just have never seen it.

And, I have to admit, I’ve read one opening plane scene that kind of worked because the main character was a witch and she used a spell to comfort the frightened passenger next to her.

Still, I’m thinking that there is a more powerful scene out there to show off the witch’s talent.

So unless it’s an integral, absolutely imperative part of the plot, why not start the novel with a scene at the destination?

22 Responses

  1. BuffySquirrel said:

    Kristin, blog posts like this just have half your readers tearing up their plane opening scenes and the other half muttering, “I can write a decent plane opening scene. I can. I’ll show her!”.

    I suppose it all evens out…

  2. Patrick McNamara said:

    My first though was more of an opening line:
    “Janet was convinced that the wings would sheer off and the plane would plummet to the ground.” I suppose starting with a character on a plane might work if it could set up a character’s conflict. But too often the plane is just another “portal” getting the character from familiar point A to unfamiliar point B.

    A snake on a plane might be intresting if it was Snake Plisken. 🙂

  3. Anonymous said:

    I bet many writers use it as an excuse for the main character to think about things and give the poor reader a massive info-dump.

  4. Simon Haynes said:

    A plane beginning is probably symbolic of the author embarking on the long, arduous voyage which is the writing of a novel. Or something.

  5. Julie said:

    “…why not start the novel with a scene at the destination?”

    Reminds me of the feel-good scene both at the start and the end of the movie Love Actually. I loved that.

  6. E is for Editrix said:

    Yeah…I’m a big fan of opening the book where the story starts. I had a nice first chapter I was editing, and it had some nice flavor at the beginning, but then we realized that the story didn’t start until page 8. Just start where the story starts.

  7. Anon E. Moose said:

    I started my current wip with the protagonist on a plane. One of my crit partners *strongly* suggested starting it with her at her destination. Got to admit it does read/flow better with the character’s feet on the ground.

  8. farrout said:

    I’m with Manic Mom. . .BUT. . .

    puking after seeing the three-headed alien sitting on the wing of the plane, pointing his finger at the protanganist and mouthing “I’m comin’ for you.” :/

  9. farrout said:

    Oops. . .that should be pointing his multiple fingers at the protagonist. (Brother, rewrite, rewrite!)

  10. Mad Scientist Matt said:

    I just realized my story’s beginning was a bit similar. It has three soldiers at sea in a lifeboat. However, I think I can make this interesting – one of the characters seems to be going nuts and seeing things that aren’t there. Only, as the story progresses, it seems that the things only he can see are actually real…

  11. Eileen said:

    I believe it was Don Maass’s book on the breakout novel that warns against scenes in cars, buses, trains. He noted that too often the entire purpose of the scene is to discuss versus “do” anything.

  12. Bernita said:

    It may have been on his website, Eileen.
    He points out that if you must have an inherently static scene, have your characters DO something, not just talk and monologue.

  13. Ray Rhamey, Flogging the Quill said:

    So true. In my Flash Editing workshop at the Writer’s Weekend Conference last week, the four samples did not suffer so much from a hackneyed setting but from the kind of “throat clearing” you see in such scenes. BTW, your post of a few days ago ended up quoted in my post this week on Flogging the Quill because you sparked some interesting thoughts about story.


  14. JerseyGirl said:

    Nope, no plane scenes in my current WIP. Heck, my MC can’t even afford to get on a bus, lol. (He needs to pay the rent and get food on the table, not necessarily in that order.)

    I *do* think an opening scene on a plane can work. I just recently read Urban Shaman by C. E. Murphy. She has her MC coming into Seattle, coming back from her mother’s funeral in Ireland. She sees something fantastical from the plane, something no one else could’ve possibly seen. Thus she starts on her fantastical journey, the end of the world, that sort of thing.

    I think what makes it work is the humor. It’s told in 1st person, and it helps that the MC thinks she’s just as nuts as she assumes everyone else on the plane thinks she is.

    Enjoyed the story. And the cover art is really cool.


  15. J. L. Bell said:

    We saw this in one of my writing groups recently: mother and daughter on a plane. Dramatically, the author had buckled herself in too tight. Her characters were already well aware of each other’s situations and (at least outwardly) seeking the same goal, so there was no conflict. They literally could not move beyond raising and lowering tray tables. They had few choices to make.

    The air travel opening was, as the sixth commenter said, simply an excuse for a data dump. Fortunately, the author recognized that her story started with a bang (not a literal one) in chapter two.

    I wonder if we see more scenes of air travel as more people write on planes or in airports. After all, there’s not much else to do but raise and lower your tray table.