Monday, October 07, 2019

How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If readers get lost in your first scene, they’ll never get to the second.

The opening scene of my novel, The Shifter, features a girl getting caught stealing eggs out from under a sleeping chicken. It’s a fun scene, I enjoyed writing it, and most of all—it helped sell the novel.

Somewhere along the lines, my critique partners and I started referring to strong opening scenes as “chicken scenes.”

As in:

“I’m still working on my chicken scene.”

“I thought of the perfect chicken scene yesterday.”

“I can’t get this book written until I find my chicken scene.”

It’s weird how these things develop, but it’s been useful shorthand to describe the goal of an opening scene. It works because it does what a good opening scene needs to do.

Get readers on board with the story in a positive way.

Here’s how to ground your readers in your opening scene and make them want to keep reading.

Oh, and you don’t have to follow these in this order, I just like the way this flows from a scene-building standpoint. Mix it up as needed:

Let Readers Know Who’s in the Scene

Give readers a person right away, or at least a sense of who the narrator is in this novel. Stories are about people, even if those people are exploring vast, epic ideas, or events that span generations.

Readers need a character to guide them through the scene.

They connect to characters, and when an opening scene doesn’t give them a person to grab onto, they can get lost. Most of the time this will be the protagonist, and those first impressions matter.

What are the first things readers learn about your protagonist? Are they the things that will make readers like them and want to spend time with them?

Of course, some novels open with the victim or villain (such as murder mysteries and thrillers), but the same principle applies. There’s still a person and/or narrator introducing them to the novel.

Sudden appearances of unbefore-mentioned characters can freak readers out.

Have you ever been talking to someone for a few minutes, then another person suddenly speaks and you had no idea they were even in the room?

It’s disconcerting.

Readers can be equally thrown if they’re deep into a scene and think they’re alone with the characters. Having someone pop up out of the blue can make them stop reading to figure out who this person is and if they missed something.

This doesn’t apply if the point is to have someone surprise your character, as sometimes we want to shock both reader and protagonist. I’m talking about a character who was lurking the whole time and we just never mentioned they were there.

(Here’s more on Who's There? Introducing Characters in a Scene)

So far, what we’re doing is saying, “Here’s who’s in the scene and if they’re the narrator or not.” In my The Shifter example, “Here’s a girl and she’s your narrator.” I know who the character is and that she’s the one telling the story.

Let Readers Know Where the Scene Takes Place

As they say in real estate—location location location.

Readers need a sense of where the scene they’re about to read takes place so they aren’t confused.

It’s also useful because a setting automatically creates inherent details in a reader’s mind so you don’t have to do as much work to bring it to life.

You don’t need a full-blow description of the setting, but a sense of place is vital.

My chicken scene doesn’t describe the ranch the protagonist, Nya, is stealing from, but it does tell you “stealing eggs from actual live chickens,” which suggest it’s on a farm of some type. “Sleeping chickens” hints that it’s night. Other details slip in slowly as the scene progresses to further flesh out the tropical canal city. The setting builds as the scene does, giving readers the details as they need them to keep them grounded.

Readers want a sense of where they are, but they don’t need (or want) to know all the details before they know the characters or the story.

Provide the critical details so readers can picture the scene.

You’ll need certain setting details in order for the story and action of that scene to make sense. For example, being on a farm sets different expectations than being on a space station. A World War II-era novel won’t evoke the same images as a modern contemporary romance set in Manhattan.

The setting can show character personality as well. For example, if your novel opens in your protagonist’s apartment, and they have a quirky sense of style that’s relevant to the story, showing that apartment says just as much about the character as it does the setting.

Show readers what they won’t assume.

If you say “school,” readers will picture classrooms and desks and all the things they remember from their time in school. But if your school has cutting edge VR helmets attached to giant mainframes, readers need to know that.

(Here’s more on The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

So far, what we’re doing is saying, “Here are these people in this general place.” For example, “Here’s a girl on a farm at night.” I know who the character is, and where she is.

Let Readers Know What the Problem Is

Once readers know the who and there where, it’s good to show them they why. If this is where the story starts, that means there’s a problem. If you have no problem, this isn’t the right opening scene.

You don’t have to give away the surprise, but readers need a hint about what’s going on.

This is where the old “start with the action” kicks in. Something is going on and it’s going to create problems for the protagonist. For Nya, she’s stealing eggs for breakfast and gets caught.

I’m not giving away the entire plot in the opening scene, because it’s not about that. It’s about bringing readers into the world and the life of this character, and making them care enough to stay with me until the real trouble starts.

Knowing the problem gives the scene a goal, which creates necessary narrative drive.

A fast way to lose a reader is to make them think they story isn’t going anywhere. They need to know what happens next, and seeing how something will turn out is what keeps them reading.

With Nya, readers don’t yet know where her egg theft is going, but they know the story is going somewhere, and hopefully they’ll want to follow along.

It also shows where the scene’s conflict will come from, making readers wonder what might happen next.

No problem = no conflict, and conflict is what drives the narrative engine of your novel. Otherwise the characters are just wandering about engaged in smalltalk.

(Here’s more on Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

So far, what we’re doing is saying, “Here are these people in this general place with this problem.” For example, “Here’s a girl stealing chickens from a farm at night, and she gets caught.”

Let Readers Know This Is Bad

Risks and consequences create the stakes of a novel, and knowing what can go horribly, horribly wrong makes readers care. Or a least want to see how bad it truly gets.

A sense of impending doom keeps readers hooked and invested in the story.

Readers can tell when something is heading down a bad path, and that sense of “Oh, this is going to end badly” is a strong hook to keep them engaged.

Knowing where the risks and consequences are shows the stakes.

If there’s nothing to lose, there’s nothing to win in achieving whatever goal the protagonist is after. It’s the possibility for failure and the results of that failure that entices readers to keep turning those pages.

(Here’s more on What's at Stake? How to Make Readers Care About Your Story)

So far, what we’re doing is saying, “Here are these people in this general place with this problem and these stakes.” For example, “Here’s a girl stealing chickens from a farm at night, she gets caught, and might wind up in prison.”

Give Readers a Reason to Turn the Page

Although everything so far has done this to some extent, the real point of an opening scene is to convince readers to spend time with your novel.

A strong voice, a cool world, an intriguing premise—anything can be a hook to keep readers hooked.

This is the lucky part, really. We have a myriad of ways to grab a reader’s attention, and every novel will be different. For example, if you’re story isn’t an action-packed rollicking joyride, you don’t have to worry about having an action-packed opening scene.

This is also where the “cool factor” of the premise typically kicks in. Whatever unique trait, skill, situation, concept, etc. your story has will usually appear in some way. For example, Nya has the ability to shift pain from person to person, and she uses this skill to escape capture.

Without hooks, there’s nothing encouraging readers to keep reading.

This is why backstory and infodumps are so discouraged. Even if the information is interesting, it doesn’t pique curiosity in the same way as a character with a problem and doing something about it.

(Here’s more on Double Jeopardy: Hooking the Reader's Brains and Heart)

So far, what we’re doing is saying, “Here are these people in this general place with this problem and these stakes, and here’s why this is really cool.” For example, “Here’s a girl stealing chickens from a farm at night, she gets caught, and might wind up in prison, but she uses her pain shifting ability and gets away.”

The opening scene has the responsibility of grounding readers in the basics they need to understand the novel, and convincing them to give the novel a try. When we make it clear who’s in that scene, where they are, what’s going wrong, why it’s bad, and why this is worth reading, readers will happily stay to see how it all turns out.

How does your opening scene measure up?

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. Your description of the chicken scene reminds me of a book I read for Halloween this year, A Halloween Tale by Austin Crawley. It started out with one of the principle characters trying to catch a frog and getting derided by two other important characters. It was a great way to introduce them with humour and the location and reason the frog was there in the first place came full circle at the end.

    1. That sounds cute. I'll have to go look it up :)