Friday, April 13, 2018

How to Craft the Perfect Opening Scene

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Story openings are crucial! First chapters determine whether or not a reader will stick around for the meat of your stories. It's vital we get this first scene right, isn't it?


How do you create the perfect opening scene?

As part of our Grow An Author series, I've explained that once I've created a list of possible story elements, I simply choose one that might work as an opening and I begin my drafting from there. At some point though, a decision must be made about whether or not the scene is a good one. I usually make that call while writing my working synopsis. For me this document will act as my outline.

Because there are so many different plot types out there, you won't hear me say there's only one way to make an opening scene successful, but I'd like to take you through the things I look for when deciding if I've chosen the correct moment in which to start my story.

Ask yourself these questions:

Does this scene introduce my storyworld as compelling?

When selecting an opening scene, you're looking for a moment that will give the reader a compelling glimpse into your storyworld. Even if your storyworld is the contemporary world we inhabit, you need to find the perfect corner of it to share with the reader. It doesn't need to be the most important setting in the story or the most idyllic, but it should be a location that gives the reader an idea of what it is to live and breathe and move in this place.

Does this scene introduce a protagonist worth getting to know?

Openings are all about the protagonist. The first scene doesn't have to showcase your protagonist's finest moment, but it does need to introduce you to him or her in a way that has the reader excited or at least intensely curious about this character. Readers are not going to flip page after page to follow a flat protagonist. If your first scene leaves readers with that impression of him or her, you've likely lost them.

Does this scene give readers a hint of what's to come?

In the best openings, there is an almost prophetic quality to the words. In the first scene of Marie Rutkoski's The Winner's Curse, we're introduced to the female protagonist, Kestrel. She's the daughter of the General and part of the wealthy ruling class. We see her gambling at cards with a group of sailors and then we watch as her emotions get the best of her and she purchases a slave against her better judgment. She's won the auction, but lost in some way that she can't quite define. As readers, we are keen to wonder what the consequences of this action will be. Once you've read the book through to completion, you realize just how perfectly chosen this first moment was.

Does this scene have its own arc?

Like every other scene in your story, there should be a rise and fall to this introductory scene. It should, in a pace appropriate to your story, climb to a high point. This high point is the purpose of the entire scene. For example, if my scene is going to be about Bob having his phone stolen, that moment, that action, is the high point. If it's about him realizing his phone is stolen, the realization is the high point. So, you really need to know WHY this scene exists. It can't just be a fun, throwaway scene; it must advance the plot. The scene itself needs to climb to its purpose and then end with something to keep the reader coming back: perhaps a revelation, reversal or turning point.

Once you've decided that yes, this scene is THE PERFECT WAY to open your story, you have one more thing to ensure:

Does this scene start with a hook?

Your first sentence is one of the most important sentences of the entire story, if not THE most important sentence. It must hook the reader. Here are some fantastic ways to do that:

1. Make your readers curious. Prompt them with a question:

The first sentence of Nadine Brandes's A Time To Die
There was a time when only God knew the day you'd die.

This sentence makes me extremely curious! It makes me want to ask, "Well, who knows now?"

2. Show off the unique voice of your narrator.

The first sentence of Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs aint got nothing much to say.

The first narrator in this book is an uneducated boy named Todd. His voice is strikingly different from the voice of Violet, the story's second narrator and this first sentence introduces him in a starkly compelling way.

3. Establish a tone.

The first two sentences of Janet Fitch's White Oleander
The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders survived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves.

Sometimes your opening hook isn't a single sentence. Sometimes it takes two or three to accomplish what you intend and that's okay. These two sentences do a lot of heavy lifting, which is another sign of a great opening. Here we learn the narrator's location and the time of year. We are also drawn in immediately by the tone of the storyteller's voice. There's something dangerous about this story. We've only read a handful of words, but we can already tell.

4. Drop your readers into the middle of a scene.

The first two sentences of Marie Rutkostki's The Winner's Curse
 She shouldn't have been tempted. This is what Kestrel thought as she swept the sailors' silver off the impromptu gaming table set up in the corner of the market. 

Starting right in the middle of a character's thoughts and action is a great way to pull readers along with you. There's no lead-up; we're just there. We're involved. And while you don't need to start with a fight scene, even small actions beg to be watched. 

I've given you a lot to think about today and now I'm wondering your thoughts on story openings. Is there an opening scene that has stuck with you long after you closed the book? An opening scene that hooked you and had you dying to know what happened next?


  1. This is super helpful. I still feel like my story is struggling for an interesting opening that really fits the tone--the obvious thing would be a prologue, but I'm trying to avoid those :P

    1. I bet you can come up with a killer opening without resorting to a prologue. Let yourself reimagine how the story itself begins. Something glorious will come to you.

  2. I think it’s cool when the character is running from something or is afraid of something. That way you are drawn in because you sympathetic and want to know what’s going on.

    1. This can be a fantastic way to open. I think the key is to include some internal monologue so we can get to know the protagonist a little bit. Too much action up front without any real understanding of who we're cheering for can be hard on a reader. My suggestion is to look for ways to make that protagonist sympathetic and worth following.

  3. I've seen some really good opening scenes in my reading. They establish the major characters, the setting, at least a small part of the conflict, and (at their best) set up a minor detail that seems insignificant at the time but ends up being important later. I feel lucky if my opening scene does even half of those things. I'm working on it, though!

    1. We're all learning and growing and that's a victory in an of itself! I am grateful that we can pull books off the shelf and discover new ways to tell a story. Happy writing, friend.

  4. Great article, I think lots of people just start writing and don;t think about introducing characters into the story properly. Thanks for this. I love your website. Talk soon

    1. It's true! Especially as we're growing in our craft and there's nothing wrong with that, so long as you revisit the scene and look for ways to improve it.