The 21 Best Tips for Writing Your Opening Scene

30 Flares Filament.io 30 Flares ×
Photo by Kojarie Matiessa

Photo by Kojarie Matiessa

The first page is your make-or-break moment. The 250 words in which your reader – be it a literary agent or bookstore browser – decides to either turn the page or close the book forever.

For. Eh. Ver.

If you don’t emotionally engage your reader by page one, it’s over. This is the D in AIDA.


The D in AIDA


To find out how to hook and keep my readers (and your readers), I scoured the Internet for the best advice on first pages and first chapters. 

Here’s a comprehensive overview of the best advice I found. (If confused, click the source link for a more detailed explanation.)

 

First of All

From “Moonrat,” a recovering editorial assistant:

  • Assume your reader is in a terrible mood when they look at page one. This prospective agent has an endless stack of submissions to sift through, not to mention actual clients to attend to. You don’t have until page two.

 

The Do Nots

From Hilari Bell:

  • Don’t open with scenery
  • Don’t open with back story (aka “the data dump”)
  • Don’t open in the middle of too much action
  • Don’t open with more than three characters (three is already pushing it)

From various agents

  • Don’t open with a dream or a flashback
  • Don’t be flowery – minimize adjectives and adverbs
  • Don’t open with a cliché – (see examples in the post)

From Livia Blackburne:

  • Don’t start with weather unless it’s about meteorologists
  • Avoid having the character think about something just so you can tell the reader about it (that’s telling, not showing).

From Hallie Ephron:

  • Don’t start with a stolen prologue – you know, when your first page is boring, so you take the most exciting scene from the middle of the book, slap it at the beginning and call it the prologue
     

 

The Dos

From Anica Mrose Rissi:

From Nancy Kress:

  • Introduce the protagonist – focus on the individual, not just a type: what is different about this person?

From Tara Lazar:

  • Briefly set the scene, but be specific versus generic – what’s unique about this place?

From Hilari Bell:

  • Set the tone of the story – is it sarcastic, dark, whimsical, suspenseful?

From Elizabeth Sims:

  • Give it a mini plot – a first chapter so layered, concise, and complete that it feels like it could stand alone will make an awesome first chapter

From Nancy Kress:

  • Understand the promises you are making your readers – both emotional and intellectual – and be prepared to follow through (will the ending meet the expectations you encouraged your readers to have in the beginning?)

Deciding Where to Begin

From Elizabeth Sims:

  • Pick a scene you know you’re going to put in—even if you don’t know where. You might discover your Chapter One right there.
  • Ask “what will the protagonist be doing when we first meet him?”

From James Scott Bell:

  • Try cutting your current first scene and starting with the next one instead

 

Feeling overwhelmed?

Here’s a more structured look at how to compose your first pages, from Les Edgerton’s book, Hooked:

The Components of an Opening Scene

 

Primary (absolutely necessary):

  1. The inciting incident – event that creates the surface problem, setting the stage for the story-worthy problem
  2. The story-worthy problem – thing the character must solve by the end of the story
  3. The initial surface problem – result of the inciting incident, appears to be what the story is about, but isn’t
  4. The setup – a snapshot that will help the reader understand the next scene

 

Secondary (may not be necessary):

  1. Back story – include only what is absolutely necessary
  2. A stellar opening sentence – spend more time on this line than any other
  3. Language – use your best prose in the beginning
  4. Character – reveal a telling detail about your protagonist using action, not exposition
  5. Setting – ground your readers but don’t go overboard
  6. Foreshadowing – hint at action or obstacles to come

 

 

Test Your First Page

At Flogging the Quill, people submit their first pages to a “Flogometer,” where people read the page and vote to turn the page or not. Ray, who runs the site, also gives valuable feedback. It may take awhile to be featured if you submit, so I advise looking at the examples already posted there to see if any are similar to yours – and whether they made the cut.

 –

 

 

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
Bookmark the permalink.

23 Comments

  1. Great advice, thank you. And thanks for the link to the Flogging blog. Looks really interesting.

  2. Well, the good news is, this didn’t set me back any.
    Actually, I have mostly good news for this post. It made me smile, and offered some useful ideas. The “pick a scene you know you’re going to put in” was an interesting thought, though it didn’t solve my particular problem. I’m more in the “how much to I cut?” struggle. On the whole, yet another thought-provoking and useful post. It doesn’t make things EASIER, but at this point I am not sure what could make things easier. :)

    • I’ve found that chopping words, paragraphs, scenes can be fun, once I force my way past the “I can’t hurt my baby!” stage (which I keep reverting back into). I get into a “shortening” mindset, and then every cut feels like a victory. What was “I wrote 1000 words today!” in the writing stage becomes “I cut 1000 words today!” Though it strikes me that this could become dangerous and I could cut TOO much and the story won’t make sense.

      …Yeah. Never easier.

      • It is possible to cut too much. I waver between having too much and cutting too much. The problem about where to start this story, though, has ceased to be pain in cutting, and has become a consideration of what a reader needs to know, and what sets the story up and moving, and what doesn’t. I am too close to the whole thing to have any idea!

  3. This post is so simple and easy to read through yet filled with practical info. Thanks heaps,

  4. Reblogged this on amberdover and commented:

    Happy Hear the Writer Roar! Tuesday :) Enjoy this reblog! God bless and Remember The High King Lives!
    ~Amber Dover

  5. I’ve always opened with someone or some people getting killed. Usually from the POV of he killer as he’s stalking, and hunting the victim, right down to the kill. Seems to work pretty well.

  6. Cool to see you mention FtQ. I’ve been reading it for years, and I wouldn’t be where I am now without it and Query Shark.

    The whole stolen prologue thing, though, has me baffled, because I hear over and over how wrong that is, yet I see it in published books ALL THE TIME. And not just bad books. Good books.

    • I think the objection is not that it doesn’t work, but that it’s overdone. I’ve seen it done well, but it can also be a lazy solution to a deeper problem. I suppose agents see it done poorly too often, so they’ve developed a bad taste in their mouth towards it.

  7. GAH! Stepping away! Stepping away! Hands up and off the keyboard!

  8. Pingback: AIDA aftermath: 4 ways the last few blog posts have changed my novel « BeKindRewrite

  9. Pingback: 4 steps to convince people they NEED to read your novel | bekindrewrite

  10. Pingback: Why no one is reading your work - bekindrewrite

  11. Pingback: CENA DE ABERTURA | roteiristadecinema

  12. Pingback: Effective Beginnings: The Secret Ingredients | A New Fiction Writers Forum

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>