The Opening Scene

The Opening Scene

Your opening scene is important, because that’s where you have to hook the reader. If they don’t care about your main character by the end of the first scene, they’re unlikely to finish your story, much less enjoy it.

One book I recently started to read opened with a ten-page prologue set a hundred years after the actual story. I made it to page twelve. Another opened with the POV character talking to her sister over breakfast, with a paragraph of irrelevant narration for every line of dialogue. I got through forty pages before giving up. (It actually got worse from there.) Here are a few tips for how to write your opening scene so that the audience will care:
1. Your Main Character Should Be in It
When you first pick up a book, you may have read the summary on the cover, but you’re still not going to be sure who is important or who you should pay attention to. Generally, the first person in your book should be the main character. (Rowling broke this rule in The Sorcerer’s Stone.) You can get around this a little bit in first person, since obviously “I” is the main character. And like every rule of writing, there are exceptions. But in most third person stories, the first person on the scene, certainly the first named person, should be the character that your readers are supposed to care about.
2. It Should Be Interesting
Obviously, your main character is interesting, or you wouldn’t be writing a story about him. But if you open with him eating breakfast like everyone else, your reader won’t think he is that interesting. After all, I can actually watch people eat breakfast. I don’t need to read about it. If he is eating breakfast he cooked for himself on a space station in the middle of nowhere, you might have my attention.
A better course would be to show something that gets right into action. Starting in the middle of things (in media res) is often a good choice, so long as the opening conflict is straightforward enough that your reader won’t be lost.
For example, what if the protagonist bursts onto the page, his guns blazing as he fights against seemingly impossible odds, but he walks away unscathed. That’s a much better way to begin than with him driving to the job, thinking about his lunch (an actual opening I’ve seen).
3. It Has to Introduce the Plot
One of my least favorite openings is a dream sequence. That’s a “send back to the author for rewrites” issue. Flash-forwards, where you start after the events of the book, are a close second. Your reader needs a reason to care about what happens in your book, not what will happen fifty years later. Likewise, while you can open with an unrelated event (like my example above), you need some kind of tie-in to the main plot. Perhaps in my example, he finds a strange tattoo on one of the men.
Some good examples of this would be things like:

  • The heroine clumsily makes her way into work, late for an important meeting where she will meet the man she eventually marries.
  • Stoically, the woman makes her way to the throne room, ready to throw herself on the mercy of the king to save her family.

Your opening scene has to pass the same test as all the other scenes; it has to have an answer to the question “So what?” Why does this matter to the story? If it’s not important to the rest of the story, it shouldn’t be in the book.
As you’re reading, watch for how books open. Is the main character in the scene? Does it explain why they are interesting? Does it further the story? In your own writing, if you can answer “yes” to those questions, you’ll have much more success pulling readers into your story and keeping them hooked.
Thursday, we’ll get a little more specific and talk about the opening line: how to write a great hook so that people won’t put your book down.

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