Friday, February 05, 2021

Story Structure: How the Opening Scene Works in a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The opening scene is the preview for your entire novel.

I find opening scenes both easy and hard to write. Once I’m ready to write them they’re easy, but it might take me a month or more to figure out the right opening line. And I can’t write the novel until I have the right opening line and scene. I need to start off from the right point or I tend to wander into the weeds.

Other writers don’t have this issue, and write whatever comes to them, knowing they’re going to revise it later. They don’t know what the right opening scene is until they write the final scene.

Both (and everything in between), are perfectly acceptable ways to write opening scenes.

Which is good, because opening scenes need to do a lot. They need to introduce the protagonist, the setting, the hook, the problem, show conflict, create voice, craft intriguing story questions, ground readers, make readers like your characters, and the list goes on and on.

An opening scene is a taste of what’s to come in the novel, a preview of the amazing and wonderful story you’re about to share with readers. It’s a promise you make that they’re not wasting their time by trusting you. But mostly…

The opening scene gives readers reasons to read the novel.

And if you don’t, they won’t read it. Hence all the fuss and focus on first pages and opening scenes. You don’t have time to ramp up to the good stuff, because most readers won’t wait chapters before something worth reading happens.

If no one is reading past your opening scene, odds are you’re not offering that taste of what’s to come, but serving leftovers. You’re giving readers backstory that explains the characters, infodump that explains the world, or telling readers about a situation that really has nothing to do with the conflict of the novel. Maybe a combination of all three. You’re explaining why they ought to read the novel, not showing the reasons they’d want to read it.

The opening scene is the tease that makes readers want more.

Let's break down the basics:

Quick note: I’m including movie examples here because the turning points are more clearly defined, and they’re easier to watch and study than novels. But the same principles apply.

What it is: The opening scene is the first glimpse readers get of the novel. It’s an audition for their time, and provides the critical elements and details they’ll need to understand the story, protagonist, and setting. Some novels open with the story, but others open with a prologue or glimpse of something outside the main characters and time frame.
  • In Stargate, it's when an archaeologist discovers the buried stargate is 1928 Giza.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss Everdeen wakes up alone, and reaches for her sister.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart is a kid and comes to the defense of a boy getting bullied on the playground.

There’s no one right way to open a novel, just one primary goal—intrigue and inform readers enough to make them want to keep reading.

When it happens: In the first several pages of the novel, perhaps the entire first chapter. If the story opens with something besides the main character, then you typically see their first scene immediately after that scene.
  • In Stargate, once the stage is set that “something strange was discovered in Egypt,” we meet the protagonist, Daniel Jackson, heading into a hotel to give a lecture about who really built the pyramids. This structure is a little different, because the introduction scene for the protagonist is also the inciting event. This is when he gets the offer that launches the entire plot.
  • In The Hunger Games, we see Katniss alone and looking for her sister, and get a sense of foreboding about the day, and her sister, Prim.
  • In Miss Congeniality, after the playground introduction of Gracie and her sense of right and wrong, we see her all grown up as an FBI agent on an undercover mission.

The first thing readers see sets the tone and expectation for the rest of the novel. Make sure what you show them, matches what they’re about to read.

What its function is: The opening scene has one job—to hook readers and make them keep reading. It’s not to explain the story to come or fill readers in on who the characters they’re about to meet are.
  • In Stargate, it's the combination of the 2000-year-old stargate combined with Daniel’s outlandish theories that the Egyptians didn’t build the pyramids. Who did? And how is that connected to the stargate?
  • In The Hunger Games, it's learning about the “reaping” and the fear that goes with it. What is the reaping? Why are they so worried about it?
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's seeing Grace making moral choices to help someone in trouble, both as a child and an adult. Her adult choice jeopardizes an FBI operation. She’s reprimanded for it, and might lose her job—which is all she has. Will Gracie get fired? What will happen to her?

Honesty is important in an opening scene. It represents the novel and its characters, and you want to set the right expectations and make promises you can keep. If your story is dark, don’t open with a light, funny scene, and vice versa.

It’s also important to keep in mind that for many stories, the premise itself works as the hook, even if that’s not seen in the opening scene. A wormhole to other planets that explains the pyramids, a televised game where kids fight to the death to win food for their districts, a scruffy, tomboy FBI agent who goes undercover at a beauty pageant.

Why it's important: It’s glorified sales copy. That might sound strange, but it’s there to entice readers to buy and/or read the book. The cover copy might intrigue them to read page one, but if the opening pages don’t satisfy, the book won’t be read. You’re “selling” your novel to readers in those first few pages.
  • In Stargate, it's the promise of other worlds, a mystery revealed, and a chance for Daniel to prove he was right all along and not be the laughing stock of the archaeological community.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's the promise of a horrible game with terrible stakes, a sister’s sacrifice, and the question about how far we’re willing to go for entertainment.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's the promise of a touching and funny fish-out-of-water story, watching the tough Gracie find her inner feminine strength and stop the bad guy.

In essence: You’re saying, “Here are some people in a situation you might find interesting. Want to read on? Please say yes.”

(Here’s more on Open Up! Writing the Opening Scene)

Things to Remember When Crafting Your Opening Scene

1. It starts with something interesting happening (the hook).

“Something happening” is a piece of advice that misdirects a lot of new writers, because it often makes them think they need to start with summer-blockbuster-movie action. You don’t. It just means that a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) should be doing something worth reading about when the book opens.

Events already in motion gives the plot a place to go so the story feels like it’s heading somewhere. The protagonist has a goal and is acting to achieve that goal—even if the goal is to avoid something bad, or to try not to act if acting would be bad for them.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel is offered a translation job by the daughter of the man who found the buried stargate. Daniel is down on his luck, recently evicted, no grant money, and disrespected by his peers. She gives him a chance to prove his theories are right. And again, this is classic inciting event material here, showing that sometimes, that happens in the first or second scene.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss shows she’s the one taking care of her family, and how dear that family is to her. Life is hard, and without her, they won’t survive. And the biggest threat they face each year is upon them.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie shows that she’s still the same person she was on the playground, doing what she thinks is right, even if it ends with negative consequences. And staying true to that part of her is costing her in other ways. She’s a good agent, but she’s avoiding her real strength to fit in and “be one of the guys.”

Pretend your opening scene is a person telling you about their day. Are they a spinning a tale that piques your curiosity, or are they a five-year-old giving you every detail about how they got dressed?

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

2. It introduces a compelling character and/or situation.

Different genres have different opening scene needs, but making them “compelling” is a must. Sometimes you do that by creating a sympathetic character your readers can relate to, sometimes you introduce a likable character readers want to hang out with, and sometimes you do it by showing a twisted individual about to do something horrible readers can’t look away from.

The more plot-focused the novel, the more likely the opening scene will be a situation than a character. Crime novels, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, suspense, and other similar novels often open with something happening that’s not in the protagonist’s point of view, but it’s an event that relates to what the protagonist is about to face in the novel.

The more character-focused the novel, the more likely the opening scene will be the protagonist facing a personal problem. Romances, women’s fiction, literary, historicals, and other similar novels often open with the protagonist living their normal life when something goes wrong in that life.

Opening with either a situation or a character works for any novel or any genre. A hard science fiction novel might open with a situation, but a space opera might open with a character with a problem. The only “rule” is to be compelling in some way.
  • In Stargate, it's the introduction of an ancient mystery and a man who solves ancient mysteries. Will Daniel be able to figure out the secrets of the stargate?
  • In The Hunger Games, it's the introduction of a bleak life, a struggle to survive, and a dread that something far worse is coming. Will Katniss be able to survive or protect her family from the games?
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's the introduction of a funny situation and a woman least likely to fit in at a beauty pageant.

A compelling character or situation is one that humanizes what’s going on, and makes it easier for readers to relate to and connect with the story.

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

3. It evokes emotion from readers.

A good opening scene makes readers care by making them feel something. They might like or sympathize with the characters, they might wonder what they’d do in the same horrible circumstance, they might know what it’s like to be in a particular situation, they might want to feel what the characters are feeling, or they might just be curious about these characters and this situation.

It’s all good. Just make readers feel something besides boredom or confusion.
  • In Stargate, it's feeling sorry for Daniel for being right, and having no one believe him. We hope this job offer is his chance to prove himself.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's feeling sorry for Katniss for her terrible existence, but also worried about her stoic nature. How much is she sacrificing to keep her family alive?
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's feeling sorry for Gracie for always being on the outside and having no one take her seriously. We hope she can find a place she belongs, and have people listen to her for once.

Emotion is what separates a story from a manual. It makes the novel about more than just absorbing the facts surrounding “what happened.”

(Here’s more on 5 Ways to Write Stronger Opening Scenes)

4. It grounds readers in the story world.

This is one of the harder aspects of a good opening scene, because a story world encompasses so much. It’s easy to overdo it and share so much that readers get overwhelmed. It’s also easy to share so little that readers feel lost and can’t quite connect to the novel at all.

Good grounding gives readers just enough information to understand the scene, who the characters are, what they’re trying to do, and the problem (conflict) in the way of them doing it. It often shares why they’re there, but that’s not always necessary. It might show the stakes, but again, sometimes that revelation comes later.

This is a place for subtly, so resist the urge to bash readers over the head with the details. Hint just enough to provide context, but not so much you give everything away (unless knowing it enhances the story, not kills the mystery).
  • In Stargate, it's showing that things exist outside our understanding, and we’re on the cusp of learning secrets that will change how we see the universe. Daniel is the person who has the answers, if he can get anyone to believe him.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's seeing the poverty Katniss and her family lives in, and realizing how much she’ll do to survive. She’s protective over her sister, and will risk much so Prim never has to make the same choices she’s had to make.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's seeing Gracie suffer for doing what she thought was right, and still doing it anyway. She’s got a solid moral compass even if that causes her trouble in other ways.

An opening scene that creates interest and curiosity is good. One that creates confusion and ambiguity is bad. And there’s a very fine line between those two.

(Here’s more on 3 Steps to Ground Readers in Your Story World )

5. It hints at all the amazing things to come.

Unless your inciting event happens in your opening scene (which it can), odds are the opening problem is a catalyst that gets the protagonist to the inciting event and the main plot of the novel. So you’ll have hints and small snippets of where the story is going, but you won’t give everything away just yet (otherwise there’s no reason to read on).

Typically, the focus is on the characters, the world or setting, and the general situation. You introduce a protagonist readers will want to know more about, and show them acting like a person worth following. You show an intriguing world that poses some interesting questions readers will want to see answered. Then you wrap it all up in a situation with uncertainty about how it will unfold to make readers want to see what this character they like does about that situation.

You’ll also show genre and tone. If this is a humorous contemporary romance, your opening scene will be funny, and include the critical tropes of the romance genre (the meet cute, flirty banter, likable characters with issues that lead to romance). If it’s horror, your opening will horrify.
  • In Stargate, it's knowing the stargate is going to take us to another world and another truth, and we’ll see Daniel proved right.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's knowing the reaping leads somewhere horrible, but we’ll follow anyway to see how Katniss survives.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's knowing Gracie is about to face her biggest challenge yet, and that she’s ill-prepared to face it.

The goal isn’t to give everything away or telegraph the secrets and twists, but to give readers enough context to understand the kind of novel it’s going to be.

(Here’s more on 5 Ways to Hook Your Readers)

The opening scene promises readers that if they enjoy this scene, then they'll enjoy the whole novel.

If the opening scene has done its job, then readers will be drawn in, eager to learn more about the characters, world, and situation you’ve introduced them to. They’ll have a sense of what to expect, and some ideas of where the story might go, but won’t see the ending coming before the book has even started.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your opening scene. Is it doing all the right things to hook readers and make them want to keep reading?

Are you showing the right preview of your novel?

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
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
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:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
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 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.

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. Of all the blog sites I watch, none of them is as likely as you to dig deep and really show what makes one side of writing work. This kind of piece is why. Well done!

    A story doesn't need a *perfect* first scene plan to get else written -- but it would sure be an excellent start, on understanding everything else, not to mention getting people to read it.

    1. Aw, thanks :) I have so much fun doing it.

  2. You are so good at what you do. Thank you for another wonderful instructional post.

  3. Useful information - I'm going to read through my first pages with this in mind. Maybe then I'll finally take the plunge and submit them to be reviewed as a Work in Progress!

    1. You should! The queue is low right now, so it's a good time.