We both know that writing a good opening scene is hard. It’s got to be perfect. These next few sentences are going to determine whether or not someone reads your book or puts it down right then and there. That’s a lot of pressure. If you’re anything like me, you may sometimes spend more time on your opening scene than any other. But what makes a good opening scene?
We all know about creating a hook. We’ve heard it a million times. You’ve probably read a thousand things on what constitutes a good hook, but it still isn’t working. I’ve heard it mentioned a few times about how a conflict should be introduced right away. Put them right in the scene. Introduce the protagonist.
There’s even more material out there on what NOT to do in your first scene. From opening cliches, to whether prologues are a good idea or not. But what I’ve found works for me, is to just ask myself a few simple questions. What are the single most important goals of understanding?
What are goals of understanding? They are elements of your story that the reader needs to know. It constitutes plot points, locations, worldbuilding elements, and characters. Characters is a broad term in my vocabulary. Anything that elicits an emotional response from my protagonist is a character. From places, to enemies, to customs and traditions. Anything they have an opinion on, is a character. And the things that will influence the emotions and actions of the protagonist the most are the first goals of understanding we must reach.
So, clearly, we need to know who our protagonist is. This doesn’t necessarily mean your main character must be introduced, but rather than someone who represents our protagonist. For example, say your main character is a farm-boy. He’s a laborer, a male, and he’s young. In the first scene, we could show a young, male hunter out in the woods. He discovers or comes across whatever the threat of the book is, and he is killed by it. Or flees.
This way, when you move to the next chapter, and introduce your main character, the reader instantly understands the relation. You introduced the danger, and now we know the stakes for this main protagonist. In fantasy fiction with different races other than humans, it is good enough to just have the first person and the second person be the same race. Or of the same faction, group, organization, etc. This type of element is what was used to great effect in G.R.R Martin’s first epic Song of Ice & Fire book. We see these grizzled men of the north type people, in great fur coats and black, who call themselves men of the Night’s Watch. They confront this terrible force, get killed, all but for a single man who flees. After this we meet the Starks. Still a cold land, still obviously not too far from where we just were. Indeed, one of them has even announced that he plans on joining the Night’s Watch not too far from then. We know what danger he goes to, but he doesn’t.
These types of elements are what make stories like that so engaging. Even as you reveal goals of understanding, you raise a new question. Conflict would better be described as tension. There’s an engaging desire, a fear, a question. You want something, but you don’t have it. The answer. The full picture. What happens? Wanting something and not having it is the base of tension and conflict. So, I’ve decided to use the mock scene I wrote up yesterday as an example. Let’s start with the first paragraph, and then we’ll break it down.
The book, bound in cracked leather, was only a little larger than Lilian’s open hands; the pages smelled of vanilla and grass, and on the cover there was the faded picture of a willow tree with a sword in its roots. Such a simple thing. Yet, when Lilian read it, it was with the full knowledge that if anyone saw her, it would be the end of her life as she knew it.
Alright, let’s look at what I did here, and why I made the decisions I did. After many revisions, it whittled down to this. In the novel, this book will soon play a pivotal role. That is why special attention is spent describing it. It’s telling the reader, this is important. But not only that, introducing the book allows me to introduce the element of Lilian’s world that is so different than ours. A worldbuilding clue. In this story, books are ancient, powerful things. Because of their potential, and their uses, only two kind of people can read. The nobility, who are able to pay for their freedom and right to literacy, and the Librarians, who are commoners that learned to read and now work for the nobility by tracking down books for them. If anyone is discovered to be able to read, they are given two choices. Pay for a tutor who can train you to understand reading and the powers that come with it, or be taken from your home and family to be sent to a school, where you will eventually become a Librarian. Living your life in service to the nobility. To some people it’s worth it. Be sent away to a school, learn about books, and get to read stories all over the world and deliver them to nobles. But Lilian has a family. As we are soon to find out.
But, she also knew that come tomorrow, she may never get the chance to read this book again. It would be out of her hands, stuck on the shelf of some noble who would never truly appreciate the wonderful story within. A hundred books had passed through her hands and each one had been the same way. Delivered by her father to someone with enough money to buy the right to read. But how anyone could read a novel and not care about the story was something she would never understand.
As you can see, the questions that were raised in the first paragraph are expanded on. We were left wondering how her life would end as she knew it, and why this book was important. Now we’re told that all books are like this, we’re told that she has a father, and that it was because of her father that she got to read books. And she loves reading, as we are about to find out.
Her dad had decided to take the long way back to Corseil, just so she’d have more time to read the book before they were forced to finish the delivery. He was a Royal Librarian. And a Librarian only finds books, they don’t own them. Lilian, as the child of a Librarian, had neither privilege. So these precious moments on the road, so few and far between, were her only opportunities to do what she loved most. Read.
In this paragraph, we’re given some locations. We’re told more about the nature of her father’s job, and more about the circumstances of her reading. We’re given more information about where they are. And since the last two paragraphs were about ideas, the next section should ground the reader again. As you can see, I’m already preparing to bring the scene back into focus, by mentioning that she’s on the road, so that in the next paragraph, the transition is smoother.
The motor carriage rocked, clattered, rumbled, and rattled constantly, but luckily Lilian had long ago grown used to reading under these conditions. The interior of the black carriage was lit by the hum of electric torches, which cast their orange glow across the worn leather seats and the family of three that sat in them. She looked at her younger brother, Jasper, who was snoring in the passenger seat next to their dad.
And we’re back in the scene again. We’re in a carriage, it’s clattering and generally being uncomfortable. The name and the image of it rumbling gives us a pretty clear idea of what kind of vehicle this is, and what sort of time period this is similar to. Not only that, but we get introduced to the third character, her brother. And in the next paragraph, we’re told a little more about him.
Lilian and Jasper shared the same honey-blonde hair, and though he was almost two years younger than her, people often mistook him for being the oldest. He was nearly as tall as their dad, who was the odd one amongst the trio. He had scruffy brown hair and a short beard that was already developing flecks of grey.
Here we get some description of our three characters. Notice how I use differences to invoke similarities and create an image. Comparing one to another is a great way to highlight features. Also, it lets you know that if they don’t look like their father, they must look like their mother. Bringing to our attention the fact that she hasn’t been mentioned. This is key piece of information. Without even saying it, I have allowed the reader to understand a plot point. I didn’t infodump, I didn’t break POV to tell you, and I didn’t force them to have some contrived conversation to bring up the fact. Trust that your reader is smart enough to figure things out on their own. Not only that, but when you let them discover and imagine and think up conclusions on their own, and then be right, it gives your reader a feeling of success, which draws them deeper into enjoying your story.
In the first five paragraphs we’ve introduced our protagonist, the two most important supporting cast members, the most important elements of the world, and a conflict. We’ve also hinted at a secret, in the mystery of why the mom isn’t there. Each sentence serves a purpose, and anything that isn’t necessary has been stripped away. Feel free to read the full mock scene. It’s exactly 1,667 words, so if you were wondering how much you’d have to write a day to complete NaNoWriMo, there’s a good visual reference. Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions, critiques, or comments, leave them below. I’m always interested in hearing about different people’s methods and techniques. Happy writing!