The primary goal of an opening scene is to make readers want to read the next scene. You’d be surprised how often this is forgotten, because the focus is on establishing the setting, introducing the protagonist, and telling readers all about the cool story waiting for them. These are all important things, but on their own they’re not going to do what an opening scene needs to do—grab readers and keep them reading.
The best way to grab readers is to give them a puzzle they’ll want to know the answer to. An intriguing first line that poses a question (literal or metaphorical), an unusual situation, a mystery, a contradiction that doesn’t quite make sense. A great voice and character they want to get to know better is another way to hook readers. As long as it’s something or someone that makes them think, “I want to know more about X.”
Start With a Problem
The opening scene problem doesn’t have to be part of the core conflict. It can be something inherent to the world the protagonist lives in. Maybe she’s being chased by monsters, or dodging a nasty boss, or even arguing with her ex-spouse. Whatever a typical issue is for the protagonist can work in an opening scene. Of course, it’s also fine if the opening problem is part of the core conflict and gets readers into the novel right away.
Whatever the problem may be, look for ways to set the protagonist on the plot path, using the opening scene problem as a bridge to get to the rest of the plot.
(More on knowing where to start your novel here)
Start With Action
The old "start with the action" advice has frustrated many a writer due to its ambiguity. “Action” suggests opening with someone in dire straits or in peril, but those scenes rarely grab readers. A random character in peril doesn’t make readers care yet because they don’t know anything about this person or why she’s in danger.
What “start with action” actually means, is to open with something happening. A question left hanging in the air. The protagonist isn’t just sitting around thinking or musing to herself (though that can be part if it), she’s doing something important to her that also has a consequence. A goal with something at stake, and conflict to complicate that goal. It doesn’t have to be life threatening, it just needs to be interesting.
(More on goals, conflicts, and stakes--and why you need all three)
Start With Setting
Providing a sense of place is important to ground readers, but we also want to show how the protagonist fits into that setting or world. If nothing is going on but a description of the setting or history about how the world got this way, there’s little to entice readers to keep reading.
Setting can often be paired with conflict to great effect. Something about the setting or world is causing a problem (conflict) with the protagonist’s goal. This allows us to describe the setting in ways relevant to the scene, while at the same time create the conflict necessary to drive that scene.
(More on ways to ground readers in your setting here)
Don’t Forget the Conflict!
If the problem is solved without hassle, it’s probably not the right problem to open the novel with, as there won’t be enough conflict. Goals, conflicts, and stakes are what drives a plot forward, so look at every scene as a stepping stone to the next part of the plot. Why does this goal/scene matter? And remember, it doesn’t have to be fighting. It can be quiet if the story calls for it. One person refusing to tell another a secret she’s dying to know is a scene with conflict, same as someone trying to fight off a serial killer.
(More on adding conflict to your scenes here)
If the Opening Scene Doesn’t Include the Protagonist
On a basic level, all opening scenes need to accomplish the same thing—hook readers and make them want to read on. If the opening scene focuses on someone other than the protagonist, there should be a good reason, such as:
- It needs to show a moment from the past or something happening outside the protagonist’s knowledge
- It centers on the antagonist triggering what will be the core conflict of the plot
- It’s creating a puzzle or mystery
Remember, this is the first thing readers are going to see. They’ll decide if they want to keep reading based on this scene. Give them a reason to turn the page.
What are some of your favorite opening scenes?