Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writing a Good Opening Scene

Okay, this is a really big topic and there’s lots of ways to go about it, so I thought I’d just start with some basics for now.

Here are a few things that make a good opening:

1. Writing a good first line, which we talked about last Thursday.

2. You should almost always start with your main character. I’m sure there are great books out there that are exceptions to this rule, but start with your main character.

3. Drop us right into the action. We don’t need big pages of set-up, of description. A big mistake I see in manuscripts is writers who spend the first several pages showing us what their main characters normal life is like. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the reader needs that to understand what’s about to happen, but they really don’t.

These are the opening lines to Me, Just Different (which seems a little vain to use as an example, but I’m not sure about copyright laws for other books, and I know I’m safe using mine.)

I wanted to refuse Eli, but I couldn’t after the night we’d
had. At the snap of the gas pump, he pulled back from the
kiss and looked into my eyes, awaiting my reaction. If my
giving in surprised him, it didn’t show. He smiled, and instead
of saying what I already knew—that getting together was a
mistake—I forced myself to smile back. Just like that, I became Eli’s
See how we’re starting right in the middle of what’s going on? And even without a few pages of us hanging out with single, care-free Skylar, you get the message that this is a weird day for her, and that something strange happened last night that has now forced her into this relationship with Eli. So plunk us right down in the middle of the action.

4. In your opening scene, give your main character something to do, a decision to make, a problem to solve. It doesn’t have to be The Big Problem that eventually comes his or her way, but just something that gets your main character active, and shows our reader something important to them.

To carry on with our Me, Just Different example, these are the paragraphs that follow what’s written above:

“You should come to the game tonight,” Eli said, unhooking
the nozzle from the Land Rover’s ever-thirsty tank. If
he didn’t have a gas guzzler, I couldn’t help bemoaning,
the kiss might never have happened. “Skylar, did you hear me?”
I ordered my mind to return to our conversation. “Sorry.
Lisa and I already talked about it. We’ll be there.”
Eli’s eyebrow quirked with amusement. “She and John
must be ‘on’ this week.”
“Who can keep track anymore?”
He ripped his receipt from the kiosk and then
surveyed my face. “I don’t want us to be like that.”
Now Eli seemed nervous, like he knew he’d served me
another chance to back out. Jodi’s face danced before my
eyes, but last night’s blur of frightening events
trumped the promise I made her three years ago. Last night Eli was
the only secure object, the only reason I’d woken up this
morning with everything still intact.
I’d been confused, of course, to wake up in the back
of Eli’s new car. I’d sat up, my head killing me. I found
Eli sleeping in the fully reclined driver’s seat, his mouth
hanging open, his breathing loud. I could remember only
bits and pieces of how I’d come to be there, but I
recalled enough to know one thing—I owed him for the night
But what a horrible reason to become his girlfriend
I opened my mouth, fully intending to back out, but
when I looked at him, at those dark blue eyes, I couldn’t
do it. Would it really be so bad to date Eli Welling?
We’d been friends for years and probably would have gotten
together before now if Jodi wasn’t in the picture. And he’d
taken such good care of me last night.
I sucked in a deep breath. “Don’t worry. We won’t be
like them.”

Stephanie Morrill, Me, Just Different,
Revell Books, a
division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2009. Used by permission.

Within the first page and a half, Skylar has made a decision that’s going to color the rest of the series.

So start by checking your opening scene for the above four things: Good first sentence, starting with your main character, plunking us down in the action, and making your main character active. Questions? Qualities of a good opening scene that I totally spaced in my woozy, still-getting-over-my-stupid-cold state of mind?

Hope everyone has a great weekend!


  1. I have no contradictions or additions, LOL.

    In the book I just started on Tuesday, I opened with "Perhaps if Lark recited the pirate's code it would get his attention. She could try standing on her head. Or if those options failed–-as surely they would–-she could always resort to throwing herself to the floor in front of him and forcing him to either acknowledge her or step on her."

    The rest of the opening scene is her first wrestling with why in the world this guy won't pay attention to her, and then actually getting his attention--in a way she never imagined.

    Hopefully it works, because this is the third incarnation of this opening scene, LOL.

  2. My second draft is gonna be soo different from the first, I can tell you that. You're helping me so much!

    Also, I have a question. Do you think that it's possible to get a novel published, even when you're still young? Because that's my goal, to get the book I'm writing published. But it seems, everywhere I look, authors saying, "I wrote my first novel when I was 13. It didn't get published, of course, but it showed I could do it," or stuff like that... Thanks.


  3. I'll answer while Stephanie's still sleeping, mwa ha ha. ;-)

    Do I think you CAN get published as a teen? Yes. But you have your work cut out for you, because you have to have a book every inch as good as the authors who have decades of experience and learning behind them.

    As one of those "first [terrible] books at 13" girls, I can honestly say that I had no idea how awful I was back then, because I had no guidance whatsoever. Hence Stephanie's fabulous blog idea.

    With the "rules" of writing under your belt and an open mind to see where you need to improve, I think your chances are much better than mine were. Still--it isn't easy EVER, so be prepared for a ton of rejections.

  4. Thankyou, Roseanna!
    And, Stephanie, I just thought I'd let you know (since you write on the blog) that none of the comments are getting through, it comes up with "Error sending message" or something, maybe there is a problem with Sarah Ann Sumpolec's email? Because that's where it says they're headed. Since I can't comment on the blog, I thought I'd let you know here! ...that's probably why there's no comments on the posts. Cuz I've commented a lot, and none of them get through...:)


  5. Thanks for covering for me, Ro :)

    Emii, I'll pass on your "comment issues" to Sarah. Thank you for letting me know! How strange.

    I'll pretty much ditto what Roseanna said. It's not impossible to get published as a teen - it's certainly happened. Although I just reread your question and you actually asked about getting published when you're still young. I was 24 when Revell bought the Skylar series, which is pretty young. (Although it didn't seem like it when I was 16.)

    But even if this story you're working on now doesn't get published, Emii, it's still valuable. I was published at such a young age - and Roseanna, who's also in her 20s, is as close to getting published as she is - because of hard work we put in to our writing in high school. In fact, the book that helped Roseanna acquire her agent was one that she started when she was 14 or so.

    If nothing else, what you're working on now is helping to develop your voice, which takes a lot of time. It's good to start the process now :)