The opening scene of your book will determine whether you hook your reader, get an agent, catch the eye of a publisher, and potentially launch your career. But, no pressure! Kidding aside, nailing the opening scene is absolutely crucial. It’s what introduces your reader to the world of your novel. What happens to your characters in that opening sequence has to be compelling. This is your chance to put in the hook. You’ve got the rest of the story to reel your reader in, but you won’t be able to do that if you don’t catch them in the opening scene.
Start in the Middle of the Action
This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to open with an action scene. It just means that you don’t want to waste time on exposition—give your character a problem and watch her squirm, right from the beginning. We don’t need to know the backstory of how she got here or why she’s in a fight with her mother or what disappointments she had as a child. We want to see snippets of a sympathetic character facing an obstacle. That said, if you want to drop a dead body, an alien invasion, or intruder into the opening scene…go right ahead.
Address the Five W’s in the Opening Scene
Your opening scene must be interesting enough to make a reader go on a journey, hundreds of pages long, with the protagonist. For that to happen, the reader needs to get to know who they’re traveling with, how and what might happen, and where and when it takes place. In other words, you’ve got to set the stage by revealing the five basic W’s of what’s going on.
In addition to these, you need to make sure the reader has a decent sense of who they’re dealing with. Why is the main character worth telling an entire story about? The way you write will show the world of the character and the tone of your book. Is this going to be funny, sarcastic, scary, or sad? You’ll need to give a sense of the conflict in the book too: what’s the problem here? Why isn’t the protagonist just going to go doing whatever they were doing before Page 1 was written? Why is this story being told now? Finally, you want to create a sense of foreshadowing. Be sure to elicit questions about the main character and her journey that will make a reader want to find out what will happen.
Avoid These Common Mistakes
There are a few no-no’s when it comes to opening scenes too. Make sure you haven’t accidentally made these common mistakes. Don’t worry: if you have, you can always revise. There’s no such thing as time wasted on perfecting the opening scene.
Being too cute by half. Sometimes it’s tempting to show off your writer’s voice or your main character’s quirks. You want to do that, of course! But sometimes it happens at the expense of also creating an interesting scene. Remember, your book and protagonist are strangers in the first chapter. While you want to make a strong first impression, your reader doesn’t know anything about your character, so make sure they’re not too “extra” before the reader has a chance to know them. What they’re doing needs to be as interesting as who they are.
Flashbacks. Readers like to know their protagonists intimately. However, nobody wants to stop the action in order to rationalize what’s happening. Make sure that whatever is going on in your opening scene is self-explanatory. If you want to flashback later or tell more of the backstory at another time, that’s fine. Here’s more on how and when to use flashbacks effectively: Flashbacks – Should You Use Them?
Above all, opening scenes are meant to draw the reader in. Does yours put a barbed hook in your reader? If not, amp it up. This isn’t catch and release—you want your readers with you until The End.