Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Open Up! Writing the Opening Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

(Here's more on The Line Forms Where? Knowing Where to Start Your Novel)

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.

(Here's more on Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers)

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.

(Here's more on Three Ways to Ground Readers in Your World)

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.

(Here's more on Forcing the Issue: Adding Conflict to Your Scenes)

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
However, be wary of scenes that open to “set the scene” in the bad way. 

Prologues that explain the world, or a moment from the protagonist’s past that explains why she’s the way she is, are often just backstory and infodumps readers don’t need to know first—and they rarely care about at this point. Start with action holds true no matter who is the focus of the opening scene.

(Here's more on The Difference Between Good Setup and Bad Setup)

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? 

Originally published September 2013. Last updated September 2019.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
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Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
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Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. There was this one book that opened with a girl trying to steal eggs... :)

    "The Thief"--Gen in prison, long after he thought he'd be able to break out.

    "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit." Nice peaceful life, and BAM! A wizard shows up with the threat/lure of adventure!

    "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

  2. Excellent blog. LInked to it on my writing wiki and saved for my own instruction! Thanks.

  3. Great post. I'm working on a novel and have recently opened with the antagonist in much the way you
    suggest in the last paragraph. I'm hoping that gives it a kick in the pants!

  4. I struggle so much with openings. I just attended a writing conference where agents read an opening and indicated how far they would read. It was super short!

    I started with a small argument between a mother and daughter, but I don't want it to come off overly dramatic. I will probably change out a dozen more times. I've considered starting with sneaking out too.

  5. Thanks guys!

    Rubianna, those panels are terrifying, aren't they? But when you think about it, we do the same thing as readers (or at least I do). We read the first page of a novel and decide if we want to buy it or not.

    It's that sense of "intrigue" that draws people in I think. A curiosity of something interesting going on, whatever that may be. So if your argument makes readers wonder what they're arguing about or why, it could work.

  6. Again with the badmouthing of backstory. We wouldn't have had The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo without huge amounts of backstory. And often, the reader DOES need to know much of the backstory. Done right, backstory lends drama and tension to the entire work. To use a movie analogy, think about it: Psycho is simply backstory to the moment Janet Leigh is slaughtered.

    1. I didn't badmouth backstory or say never to use it. The only time I believe I mentioned it was to caution against prologues that were just unnecessary backstory readers don't need t know first. I never even said not to use it.

      If it serves the story there's no issue with having it.

      It's also typically not an issue later in the story when readers want to know the history of a character.

  7. One of my favorite openings is from Secrets by Robin Jones Gunn. The protagonist is driving in her new car to start a new life away from her father; and it's her 25th birthday. She rounds a curve and gets blinded by sunlight, dodges a truck and ends up in a wreck.
    Consider me hooked.

  8. Hi, Janice, I must admit that it doesn’t get any sweeter than this blog. You definitely pointed out some key things to focus on when writing a captivating story. Thank you for sharing your brilliant insight.