Monday, July 6, 2015

How To Write A Great First Scene

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

We've likely all had the experience of picking up a book, reading the first scene, and having no interest in continuing the story. I would guess we've also all had times when we've read a first scene, felt instantly hooked, and flipped the page to start the next scene.

Obviously this is the feeling we want to create with our own stories. So how do we know if we've started our book in a good place?

Here are some things to keep in mind when you're picking where to start your story:

1. The opening of your book is a promise to your reader. 

What is it you want to promise them? Is it, "This is a fast-paced adventure novel"? Or, "This story will follow a quirky character and takes place in an imaginative world"?

Different books have different feels to them, and you want to make sure you're prompting the correct feeling for your type of story. Otherwise your reader will be disappointed if the book opens like a fast-paced adventure before easing into a coming-of-age novel.

It's a good idea to read several opening scenes from books that are published in the same genre you write. Epic fantasies open in a different way than romance novels, and if you want to appeal to readers of those genres, it's smart to study the writers who are doing well.

2. In general (I stress, in general) it's best to open with your main character. 

Preferably something that makes the reader want to spend time with them. That doesn't necessarily mean we have to find them warm and cuddly. Maybe we find them intriguing, or their situation is sympathetic, or we can relate personally to their struggle.

One of the reasons starting with your main character is a good idea is the whole promise thing. When you highlight a character right away, you're telling the reader, "Hey, this character is so important, we're going to start with them. Go ahead and bond."

3. Start close to the journey.

Sometimes my story ideas come to me in the form of an opening scene. I love it when that happens. When they don't, I have to work a bit harder to figure out where they should begin. If that's the case, I try to think about what moment in the story will send my character on her journey.

In the historical mystery I recently finished, I knew my main character started her journey when her best friend was reported missing. So I worked backward from that point. What did we need to know about the best friend before she went missing? What did we need to know about my main character to make it clear she wouldn't stand idly by? Who else needed to be introduced?

Working backwards from when your character starts his or her journey can help you nail down the best place to start.

4. Remember your W's.

When you write your opening scene, you can ground your reader by remembering the W's. Who is this story about? What is happening, or what is about to happen? When is this taking place? Where are we? Why are we here?

I've read several contest entries where I didn't know until page three that this was a historical novel. Or where the main character's name isn't stated anywhere in the first chapter. It's easy to do this because we know what's going on, and this is a simple way to check that we've provided necessary details.

If you have no idea how to start your story, don't panic. There are lots of writers who write a few chapters before they find the beginning, so don't get discouraged if you can't clearly see the best opening scene.

Do you struggle with beginnings? Do you have tips that have worked well for you?


  1. Thanks for the helpful post! Beginnings are something I always struggle with. :P

  2. In my brand new WIP that I'm outlining right now, I decided to have a prologue (something I don't normally do, because most of my stories don't need one). The MC isn't in it, and it takes place about sixteen years before the rest of the story. But it's from the POV of another important character doing something that sets the stage for the inciting incident to happen in chapter one :)


  3. Great post! Beginnings are always something I enjoy, in both reading and writing. In the first scene of my novel, The Assassin's Mercy, Dorlin is in the middle of an assassination when he is attacked by a Nair, a monster that he fears. When the mission goes awry it opens the stage for the inciting incident to take place a bit later. But that first scene really explores my character, and in that way I can connect with him and stick with him through his journey :). Cool post.

    1. Love connecting with a character:)

  4. Thank you so much for this post! I really struggle with beginnings and how to make them interesting (and even how/where to start them). I do have a quick question about where to start beginnings, though. I know you're supposed to start them close to the journey, but do you have to start them in the action that leads right up to the journey? In my story, I have the beginning written to set up a little about what happens before the Hero takes the plunge into the journey. Is that too uninteresting to start before the plunge?

    1. It depends. The first time I wrote my first chapter I began IN the action, but without any context it fell apart. The key to fixing it was showing off a bit of the normal world along with my character's positive/unexpected traits before showing his rough outlaw side. "Normal" does not have to be boring, even if your character is a normal person, if you are writing in a world different from our own, show it. If you are in the normal world, you can start before the plunge if it is interesting. Beta readers are great for this if you are unsure if your beginning is interesting.

  5. Thank you SO much for this post! It's just what I needed right now. :-)

  6. Awesome post! I spend a lot of time playing with my first scene to get the effect I want. I have tried prologues, and I'm undecided as to whether my WIP needs one, so those can go either way for me. Definitely get the action rolling right from the first sentence. Your first few lines can make or break your book. I like to kind of startle the reader with my first line, then throw them right into the character's world. You write five chapters about kids going around doing normal stuff before you start the real storyline, and you're going to lose me pretty quick.

  7. Beginnings are the hardest for me to write. Surprisingly endings are really easy for me.

  8. The key for me is starting fresh with a promising idea. The time I forced a beginning I rewrote it from scratch three times before The Maze Runner came out. Excited for the movie, it hit me that if I couldn't write the character from who I thought she was, I had to let her create herself after erasing her memory. The story is nothing like The Maze Runner, but erasing her memory let me create the best first chapter I have ever written.

  9. The second sentence always seems to be the hardest for me...

  10. This is really helpful. For a story I'm about to write, I'm trying something that Ann. M. Martin did, where her first and last chapters were a peek in the windows of a few characters lives. It was an idea that made her book much more magical, and I was hooked from the first page. If I can do it half as well as she did, it will work amazingly.

  11. Usually, for me, writing an opening scene comes easiest when I write about something relateable. For example, I love the beach and rain, so my opening scene would be possibly my protagonist jogging along the beach in the rain. A little on the nose but it's a tip I find useful.

  12. I always start in the middle of a conversation or action. My current novel I am writing starts with my main character secretly watching her mother and her aunt talk about her father, who she has never met. Then, she runs to go find him.