For a new writer, nothing matters more than your book’s opening scene. It gives a first impression of both you and your story. Without previous titles to tell people what to expect, those first pages serve as a representation of everything to come. Few readers will take a chance on writing that fails to hook them from page one.
Here are a few common ways writers sabotage their opening scenes. Every rule has its exceptions, and each of these openings probably appears in several great books. However, using them gives readers or agents a reason to say no before fully considering your book.
Your protagonist waking up
Many opening scenes show the main character waking up. Some even do it successfully. However, most agents and editors recommend against opening this way.
Any time you use a cliche — and that includes putting a waking-up scene on the first page — you need a reason why it and nothing else will do. Replacing cliches with something more original will make your story an easier sell.
If you think this opening scene does make the most sense for your story, prepare to answer a few important questions. First of all, why must the reader see this particular moment before anything else? Your opening scene sets readers up for the first inciting incident. What about waking up, specifically, does this job so well? If you have trouble answering that question, consider finding a new starting point.
Like the waking up scene, a prologue automatically makes your story a harder sell. It risks delaying the first inciting incident too far and failing to hook readers in those crucial first pages. Avoid prologues if at all possible not only for story reasons, but because so many industry professionals are biased against them. The fewer reasons you give people to say no to your book, the better.
A transitional scene
Transitional scenes show your protagonist moving from Point A to Point B. They’re quiet but extremely useful. Time spent in the car, taking a shower, or riding the train to work makes room for ruminations and flashbacks. These glimpses into your protagonist’s inner world help build emotional connection with the reader. They also make weak openers.
Transitional scenes slow your story’s pace. They give both reader and protagonist a chance to catch their breath and process what’s just happened. This tool works only after you’ve hooked the reader with an interesting turn of events. Write an opening where something tangible actually happens, then show your main character mulling it over.
A bomb exploding
One of the stories we critiqued in my writing group literally opened with a bang: a bomb exploded and threw everyone into crisis mode. We all loved it, but the author made the right choice to cut it. As intense and exciting as the explosion and its aftermath were, we didn’t have enough context for it — yet.
Before we see your protagonist’s world fall apart, give readers a taste of what that world is like and who your character is. Otherwise we won’t understand the full import of the crisis.
Too much setting
Many of us fall in love with our settings. Sometimes the setting almost feels like a character unto itself. However, readers want to connect with a person in your book’s opening pages. Because this emotional connection between reader and protagonist is the key to hooking them for the rest of the story, prioritize it above all else in your opening.
Too little dialogue
Your opening sets the tone for the rest of the book. If the first scene feels like a slog, readers will assume they’re in for more of the same in subsequent chapters. This makes pacing a critical issue in Chapter One — and nothing picks up the pace like dialogue.
Not only does dialogue prevent your prose from feeling too dense, it shows multiple characters interacting. Relationships pique readers’ interest. Give them something juicy in the first scene by including plenty of conversation.
Starting in the wrong place
These are only a few of the most common novel opening pitfalls. Look for them when revising your manuscript, but also make sure your story begins in the right place. Starting in the wrong place is extremely common. When a member of my writing group brings a new draft for critique, someone almost invariably says, “I don’t think you need Chapter One.”
Don’t make readers wait too long for your first inciting incident. Your opening scene should provide a vivid taste of who your protagonist is and what challenges they’re going to encounter. Something tangible should happen. Readers should feel the beginnings of a strong emotional connection with your main character. The opening scene invites readers on a journey, and we should leave it feeling like we’d be worse off for not joining.