Starting your novel in the right spot is not easy. Trust me! I have three opening scenes drafted for my work in progress (WIP). But it is extremely important for two reasons.
- If you hope to score a traditional publishing deal, you’ll be querying agents and small presses. A submission packet usually includes the query letter and the first five to ten pages. That’s it. Those opening pages must do a lot of heavy lifting to entice the agent to want to read more.
- If you plan to pursue self-publishing, you must hook readers in the first few pages. They are less likely to finish and recommend your book if you don’t. Those first few pages need to land even if the rest of the story is excellent.
But what should, and maybe more importantly, what should not, be in those opening pages?
Below you’ll find the best practices my research uncovered. And if you use any of these tactics in your opening pages with great success, bravo! Many authors do. This is only meant to bring awareness of constructing opening pages that work without taking risks. Authors who are risk-takers, all the respect!
Many agents and readers frown upon prologues. Prologues can come across as info-dumpy. Best practice is to start the story where it starts. Instead, take that prologue content and expertly weave it throughout the story through dialogue or character interiority. If your agent or editor thinks your story would benefit from a prologue they will let you know. But querying with a prologue prevents the agent from getting a good grasp of your story. Again, you may only get five to ten pages. If you insist your story needs a prologue, do extensive research on how to do it well and keep it brief.
You have hundreds of pages to share pertinent backstory rather than to risk pulling an agent or reader out of the opening scene. Like a prologue, backstory can come across as info-dumpy. Also, readers need to be grounded in the here and now before learning about a character’s past, if it is even necessary.
Fleshed Out Insignificant Characters
If your main character works at a bank, resist the urge to overly describe or name customers the reader will never see again. All characters fleshed out in the opening scene should be main characters. Those first few pages are valuable real estate; don’t waste them on characters that aren’t part of the main plot.
Too Many Characters
Additionally, don’t introduce every main character in the first scene. You’ll risk confusing your readers. If you have a huge cast, consider the main character with his or her best friend(s) a few secondary main characters, or the antagonist only in the opening scene.
Only One Character
Yes, some authors do pull this off, but it’s risky. Opening pages with just one character can also read as info-dumpy, as the character is usually just in their own head. It’s hard to build tension with one character staring out a window with only their own thoughts.
Cliche opening examples are beginning your story with a character waking up, walking in nature, describing the weather, the opening scene actually being a dream, etc. Shy away from what has been overdone. Write an opening scene that is unique to your story!
Starting Your Opening Scene with Dialogue
Also a risky move. It’s impossible for a reader to know how to interpret a line of dialogue if we don’t know who is speaking it. Ground readers in a few sentences in time, place, and character before using dialogue.
Avoid telling all the details about the setting or describing every aspect of a character’s appearance. Instead, show the reader the setting through the characters moving and interacting in it. Flesh out the main character’s appearance also by interacting in the setting. Does the main character need a step stool to reach a dusty shelf to collect an old book, or do they have to stoop to avoid hitting a chandelier? These are much better ways to show versus tell.
Less Risky Openers
Drop the Main Character into a Scene Right Before the Inciting Incident.
Let the reader see what everyday life is like for your main character before the thing that happens to them that starts their character arc. For example: Your main character is about to get a job that will change her life. Show us her life before getting this job. Maybe the opening scene is her getting ready for the job interview, and everything is going wrong. The baby needs a diaper change, the dog poops on the rug, and her husband has lost his car keys, etc.
Setting and Time Period
Through the characters’ interactions and interiority, your reader should know when in time your story takes place and where. In the scene above, if the main character is listening to a podcast while she’s getting ready and later she puts her purse on a granite countertop, the reader knows the story takes place in a contemporary residential setting. If the main character is listening to her clock radio and later puts her purse on a green laminate countertop the reader knows the story takes place in a past setting. You can also use a time stamp. Example: Orlando, Florida 1989 / or Seattle, Washington 2019.
Character Goals and Obstacles
In every scene, including the opening scene, your main character should have a goal, something they are trying to achieve, and obstacles preventing them from getting it. So if we continue the idea from before, the character’s goal is to find the perfect outfit and to get ready for this job interview. The obstacles are the baby, the dog, the husband, maybe the outfit is missing a button, etc.
Leave More Questions Than Answers
Readers need reasons to turn pages. Questions are the tool to get them to do it. Maybe don’t tell the reader what kind of job she’s applying for. Maybe someone calls, and her husband makes a comment about the caller that raises questions. Maybe the husband rushes out the door without kissing her goodbye, and that causes her to pause. The more questions you leave the reader with, the more likely they’ll keep reading to find out the answers.
Power Imbalance and Tension
The main character should be in a position of power imbalance. In the scene above, that would be easy. The husband could make a comment that lets the reader see the power imbalance. Perhaps he says something like, “For the record, I can’t miss work to stay home with a sick baby. If you get this job, that’s gonna be on you.” Create a power imbalance where the reader feels the main character’s tension.
Wrapping your opening pages in a neat little bow is risky. You should leave the reader with one big question or surprise. Maybe your main character finally gets her husband out the door and the baby dropped of. She’s excited to get to this interview, and the chapter ends with her in a car wreck. Or she gets to the job interview and walks in on what she thinks is a workplace affair in progress. Something. End with the reader feeling, “WTF just happened?”
Other Things to Consider
The guidelines above are just that, guidelines. When writing your opening scene, search online for your genre and what readers expect in an opening scene. Romance will differ from Fantasy. Historical will differ from Thriller. Know your genre.
You’ll need to hook a YA reader quickly. Adult readers may enjoy a little more world-building or interiority before diving into the action.
Examples from the Pros
Read popular books in your genre and see how they craft their opening pages. Rule-breaking can be effective, and the pros know how to do it. Even the risky openings can be done well. But often better safe than sorry is a good rule of thumb, especially for emerging writers.
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