Thursday, December 06, 2018

5 Ways to Write Stronger Opening Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The opening scene can make or break your novel, so make sure you write a strong one.

There’s a wide range of advice when it comes to writing opening scenes. Many say not to worry about it, because odds are the real opening is several pages (or scenes) into the book and you’ll toss the opening anyway.

Others say you won’t really know the right opening scene until you’ve written then ending, and then you’ll go back and rewrite it.

Then there are those who can’t write the book until they get the right opening scene, and it won’t need to be changed later.

I agree with all of this, because every writer is different. You might need the “throat clearing” a throwaway opening scene gives you, or you might like to start off strong and build from there. Whatever works for you, works. I’m a “get it right the first time” writer myself and can spend weeks (or longer) just coming up with the perfect opening line.

No matter how you get there, a strong opening scene will hook readers and make them want to read the rest of the novel. Let’s look at five ways to write strong openings.

1. Make readers wonder about something.

A strong opening makes readers curious enough to want to keep reading. Maybe it’s an interesting situation or a funny character, maybe it’s a fascinating world or a intriguing question, whatever it is, knowing “the answer” is compelling enough to make readers turn the page.

Look at your opening scene and ask:
  • What will readers wonder about?
  • What will they want to know more about?
  • What are you teasing them with?
  • What secrets have you dropped or suggested?
  • What promises have you made?
Pay attention to when these questions comes up as well. You want readers wondering right from the start, not just in the last few paragraphs. If there’s nothing to get them to the end of the scene, they won’t ever get there.

(Here’s more on asking the right story questions)

2. Give readers a character who intrigues them.

As the adage says, “readers come for the plot, but they stay for the characters.” An intriguing character makes readers curious to learn more, and they’ll keep reading to find out. There’s something about the character that draws readers in and makes the want to spend time with this person.

Look at your opening scene and ask:
  • What’s compelling about this character?
  • What is the character doing that’s interesting?
  • Does the character have a unique or captivating voice?
  • Why should readers care about this character?
And remember—intriguing doesn’t always mean likable. A fascinating serial killer or driven madman can capture attention as well. Good or bad, mean or nice, crazy or sane, offer readers a character they’ll want to get to know.

(Here’s more on crafting an intriguing character)

3. Make it easy for readers to get on board the story.

A strong opening scene offers readers a hand and pulls them into the story. It’s clear enough to understand the situation and problem and doesn’t make readers wade through a lot of backstory or explanation just to figure out what’s going on.

Look at your opening scene and ask:
  • Is it clear what’s going on?
  • Is it accessible for readers who know nothing about the story?
  • Is it clear who the main characters are?
  • Is there enough description to be immersive, but not overpowering?
  • Is it clear where it’s going—or at least clear it’s going somewhere.
Many an opening scene has lost readers simply by trying to do too much. If an opening requires undue effort on the readers’ part just to be understood, that’s a big red flag there’s a problem. Make it easy for readers to get lost in the tale first, and then you can start weaving in the complexities of that tale.

(Here’s more on the dangers of making your novel hard to read)

4. Give readers a reason to keep reading.

You’d be surprised how often this is missing in a first draft as we get caught up in explaining why the opening scene is the opening scene. Instead, you should remember an opening scene is all about hooking readers and making good on the promise of the cover blurb. You’ve hooked them with the novel’s premise, plot, or story, and the opening scene is where you launch readers on their journey through that idea.

Look at your opening scene and ask:
  • What connects back to the premise, plot, or story of the novel?
  • What about the situation is unique to your idea?
  • What are the “cool factors” in the opening scene?
  • Is there anything readers need to “slog through” to “get to the good stuff?”
Good opening scenes make a promise that the rest of the novel is going to offer a compelling and entertaining story. They give readers something that shows they’re not wasting their time by investing in this book.

(Here are five ways to hook your reader)

5. Make it about the story, not the setup.

There’s so much that goes into a novel that’s it’s easy to want to share as much of that development as fast as we possibly can. So instead of crafting an interesting situation with an intriguing character and a strong hook, we dump a lot of backstory and setup into the first scene to prepare readers for the book.

Look at your opening scene and ask:
  • Are you explaining the very things that would make readers curious to read on?
  • Does something interesting happen in the first scene, or is the scene just setting up the next one?
  • Is the focus on the situation and how it got like that, or a character with a problem?
  • What part of the story appears in the opening scene?
  • Does the story create the plot?
There’s a fine line between setting up the right story pieces to hook readers and dumping setup into the opening scene, and often, we have to trust our instincts (and our beta readers) to know how much is too much. The more fantastical the word, the more setup we can usually have, but be wary of going too far.

(Here’s more on the difference between good setup and bad setup)

To craft a strong opening scene, any one of the above can get you there—but the more you have, the stronger the opening will be. Intriguing characters with a fascinating story problem and a premise readers can’t wait to explore, presenting with just the right amount of story questions and enough left dangling to evoke curiosity, and you’ve got opening scene gold.

What’s your favorite way to open a scene? Do you have a preference or does it change book to book?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

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

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Been waiting for this article!
    Openings are my weak place, and I had an aha! moment while reading the last question: Does the story create the plot?
    I'm a character-centric writer, but that concept completely changed my view of the first scene. Thanks Janice!

    1. Oh good! I'm so happy it triggered am a'ha moment :) I hope this makes openings easier for you from now on.

  2. A difficult I've found with dropping additional information into the opening is that it can become a little convoluted. In the opening of the first scene of the opening book of my current series, I dropped in the fact that my main character had three fathers, that she had intimate knowledge of the lore of an American Indian tribe, and that she was familiar with Tomiki Aikido, all while she is in pursuit of a guy beating his wife. I think the scene works, but we'll see if my readers do.

    1. This is true, it can become overwhelming for readers if it's too much. (hmm...that's not a bad topic for another article, thanks!).

      I think it will depend on how much is used and the context. If all those details have relevancy to the pursuit (which I assume is the goal driving that scene), then they probably flow by seamlessly and give a good sense of the character. If they're not related and shoved in there awkwardly, they'll probably feel like too much.

  3. Thank you, Janice. You covered a lot of good points.