Thoughts on Opening Scenes

The following is a compilation of ideas I’ve had recently about how to write effective opening scenes for a novel or short story. The usual caveats apply: I’m an idiot, this is not a secret formula, a great writer can make anything work, etc. Use, ignore or argue with at your leisure.

By what criteria should we judge an opening chapter, opening scene, or even an opening sentence? Let’s accept the premise that the purpose of an opening is to compel the reader to continue reading. This is often stated as “the opening scene should hook the reader.” While not untrue, I believe it’s more helpful to phrase it thusly:

The story should hook the reader. The way it does this is by being a good story. The opening scene should deliver the reader into the story as quickly and easily as possible.

Sometimes when critiquing, I see openings which seem like they were written separately from the story, then grafted on to the beginning in Frankensteinian fashion. You’ve probably seen them, too: the sentence with the clever turn of phrase, vaguely alluding to a plot point which will be revealed 200 pages later; the in-media-res scene with the protagonist hanging by their fingernails from a cliff with every manner of gun, bomb, bow, sword, axe, dagger and Gilbert Island shark-tooth spears aimed at their head, none of which has any impact on the main plot once they make their miraculous escape.

Unnecessary. The hook is the story. If the story is good, then people will want to read it, provided you actually let them.

(None of which is to say that an opening sentence can’t have a clever turn of phrase, or a cliff-hanging-bomb-aiming etc. etc. If your book has a character who spends the entire story coming up with witty aphorisms, a witty aphorism would probably make a great opening sentence. The same goes for action scenes. First impressions set expectations. Again, the opening should reflect the story, because the opening is the story. Just as the purpose of the opening is to compel the reader to read onward, the purpose of every sentence in the book is to compel the reader to read the next sentence.)

So, how do we deliver the reader into the story as quickly as possible?

The reader needs to know who, what, where, and why.

In other words, 1) who is main character? 2) What are they doing? 3) Where are they doing it? 4) Why are they doing it?

The answers to these questions are not equally important. In fact, I’d wager you’re far better off addressing the first two in isolation, working them out and refining them before you even consider (3) and (4).

Now, it goes without saying to “show, don’t tell” and all that. When I talk about answering questions, I don’t mean by giving a rote description of your character’s occupation and primary personality quirks. Rather, write a scene to show the reader who the character is. How? By carefully choosing the action that the character is performing.

When introducing a major character, the character’s actions in themselves should reveal something about a) what that character does b) who that character is.

Example time. Look at Marvel’s 2014 film version of The Guardians of the Galaxy, which opens on the main character Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fwm-v5gHX6k

(Point of order: this is not actually the opening scene of the movie, which begins with a flashback prologue which probably works a lot better on film than it would in print. The point remains that we’re introducing the charater of “Adult Quill,” here, so I’m going to go with it anyway :p.)

In the scene, Quill arrives on a desolate alien world. By viewing some sort of holographic history-player (not shown in the above clip), he finds the location of some sort of rare artifact. So, Quill is hunting treasure. Right away, we can conclude something about what he does: he’s an explorer, or a scavenger, or something of that ilk. Sometime later, we’ll find out more about what does Quill does for a living, but what we’ve been shown so far is essentially on point; Quill hunts treasure, and the treasure he’s about to find plays a big role in the main plot of the story. So, one box checked off.

Then, as he reaches the entrance to the cave, he pauses, clips on a vintage Sony Walkman, and begins dancing to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone (1974). Why? Well, it gives us some downtime to show the opening credits, and sets up the motif for the soundtrack (now available on iTunes). But more importantly, it shows us something about who Quill is. He’s quirky. A little goofy. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. Say it how you will, but it’s something for the audience to hang their hat on, to remind us that this isn’t just a cardboard stand-up going through the plot motions.

And just like that, most of the work of the opening scene is done. By the time something actually happens to Quill, we’re fully invested, looking to find out more about this guy and what he’s up to.

Did that seem a little too easy?

When it comes to who and what, keep it simple to start. One thing is usually enough.

Your mileage may vary, but by the time I get to the point of starting to write a novel based on a character, I already know a lot about what makes that character tick. Desires, fears, moods, quirks, history and so on. For a fully developed character, who can be as complex and multi-faceted as any real person, it can be hard to pinpoint one single aspect of their personality as their “key” facet.

Well, tough shit. Choose one. Show it to the reader, and then let the story take its course. Lead them along with breadcrumbs instead of hitting them over the head with the baguette.

Let’s take another example. The Hunger Games, book one. Katniss wakes up and her first thoughts are of her frightened younger sister. There is some brief discussion of her family’s bleak home situation and something called the reaping, and then, “I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots.” Very direct! Look at what Suzanne Collins has established with this sentence and the scene that follows: Katniss is a hunter. One thing, easily understandable, and very relevant to the novel that follows (though perhaps not in a way the reader might expect). Furthermore, Katniss isn’t playing by the rules; immediately, she slips through the fence around her district to illegally poach game outside. She’s a bit of a rebel, willing to take risks and to fight back against a system stacked against her.

Collins has a lot of exposition to get out of the way so that we can understand what the reaping is about before the first chapter ends. The use of inner monologue and a distinct voice help us flesh out some details, but more importantly for the issue at hand, the fact that Katniss is a hunter allows her hunting trip to do double-duty by showing us what Katniss’s everyday world is like.

Generally speaking, having a character do something in an opening is a lot easier if you make the character a “do-er.” In other words, ask yourself if you can describe your opening character in one word, ending in “–er” or “–or” (Soldier, Hunter, Investigator, etc.; OK, words like “Thief” count, too). If yes, then you can cover two bases at once by having them perform the action they’re best at, while tying the outcome of that action to the main plot. If not, examine carefully if your character is actually pushing forward the events of the story at the outset, or if their only role is to be reactive (not impossible to pull off, but often a sign of impending boredom).

So that’s two questions taken care of, what about the “where”?

When it comes to setting, think familiar.

This was one that escaped me for a long time. To me, speculative fiction is all about the grandest set-pieces, from Minas Tirith to the Ringworld. And as a fan of bizarre and mind-bending settings, it was always tempting to put my best stuff up front, so to speak.

The problem was, if my stories were restaurants, the diners might have been too distracted by the view to order their food. Not that a view isn’t great—it’s just that right when the customer sits down, you want as little as possible between them and the meat, i.e. the characters.

This idea is a little different from the standard “don’t over-describe” advice. It’s not that I was spending pages and pages describing every paving stone of some fantastical city; it’s just that the weirder a setting is, the more effort a reader has to expend to form a mental picture of it, and the less they have to give to assimilating all the new characters and situations you’re throwing at them.

Consider instead a familiar setting. A tavern. A marketplace. With one word each, I’ve already given you the start of a mental picture of these places; a few well-chosen details will complete it. Don’t worry about failing to impress the reader with your ingenuity, or not having the opening setting reflect the rest of the story; the character’s actions will take charge of leading us forward.

Think back to Guardians of the Galaxy again. The barren planet that Quill arrives on is serviceable enough, a little drab, interesting rock formations, but it doesn’t give much of a hint as to where the rest of the movie is going to take place, whether that be in space or a mining colony in the head of a dead titan or whatever. Likewise, District 12, while well-fleshed-out and a key area in the Hunger Games series, is nowhere near as important to the first book compared to its main setting, the complex and imaginative Games Arena. And all of this works to the respective franchise’s advantage: when the audience does finally see those “wow” set-pieces, they’re all the more impressive compared to what came before.

Finally, we come to the “why” of the story, and how to deliver it to the reader:

Don’t say anything about “why.” The character’s action should be chosen so that you don’t have to.

Let’s return to Peter Quill one more time (I know, I know, I’m lame). Why is he looking for this alien artifact? Presumably, it must be rare, and rare things are usually worth money. So it’s a fair bet that he’s going to sell this thing to get rich.

That’s what the viewer can assume, anyway. In this case, they’d be right, but really, it wouldn’t make much of a difference if it turned out they weren’t. The main point is just that Quill’s motivations seem self-explanatory. Likewise, Katniss is going hunting. Why? She’s hungry, so she’s going to get food. If you’re hungry, do you try to get food? Yes? See how easy that was?

But what if, instead of taking her hunting trip, the book had opened with Katniss and her sister doing something to decrease their chances of being taken by the reaping? OK, what the hell is the reaping? Why does Katniss care so much? Oh, they’re going to kill the people they take…wait…not kill them…put them in this battle arena thing…wait, why the hell are they doing that?

See? Not so easy. By the time the reader has figured all this out, they’ve sat through pages and pages of the characters making a big fuss about something they can’t relate to. Or more likely, they haven’t, if you catch my drift.

Or, just take a hint from Stephen King, who wrote one of my favorite opening sentences of all time:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

Bam, just like that. Who? The gunslinger. What? Following the man in black. Where? The desert. Why?

Maybe you should read and find out…

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Opening Scenes

  1. Excellent post. Say, what do you think about starting stories off with a descriptive paragraph about the setting? I’ve seen this done often.

    1. This used to be commonplace, but in the modern era editors tend to frown on it. Of course, nothing is impossible to pull off, it’s just going to be more challenging to maintain interest with a description of scenery, unless your paragraph has something about it that’s especially compelling or unique.

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