The 4-Step Checklist for Your Story’s Opening Scene

4 Step Checklist for Your Story's Opening SceneYour story’s opening scene is always going to be tricky. It has to accomplish all kinds of goals in very little time and few words. Today, let’s look at the four things your story’s opening scene needs to check off its list–starting with the single most important one.

The Most Important Job of an Opening Scene

Arguably, any opening scene’s most important job is that of introducing the main character so readers immediately gets a sense of who this person is and why they’re going to want to follow him around for 300 pages.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is by introducing your character in a “characteristic moment.” Show him in a situation that brings the salient details of his personality and lifestyle to the forefront.

The Four Jobs of Your Opening Scene: A Checklist

For a marvelous example of how to seamlessly weave multiple threads into a successful opening scene, take a look at the 1992 movie Forever Young. The exciting opening scene features a early version of the B-25 careening through the skies, while test pilot Daniel McCormick (Mel Gibson) gleefully struggles to keep it under control.

This action-packed opening scene accomplishes four important goals:

1. Hook Readers

Forever Young‘s opening scene immediately grips the viewer’s attention thanks to the high tension of the out of control plane. It opens in medias res (in the middle of things), without dumping readers into the middle of the main conflict–which they have no reason to care about just yet.

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2. Tell Readers What This Story Is About

Forever Young immediately establishes the importance of flying, which will be a prominent motif throughout the film. This is also a good place to start introducing your story’s thematic premise. You don’t have to cram it into the opening line, but you do need to establish what this story is about as early as possible. At least hint at in the first chapter.

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3. Introduce the Setting

Forever Young‘s opening scene introduces the historical setting in a organic way: viewers understand right away that the B-25 has just been invented. Your readers need to be grounded in your story’s time and place. Don’t leave a vacuum for their imaginations to fill. Give them a few pertinent details upfront, so they know what to visualize.

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4. Present Your Protagonist in a Characteristic Moment

Here it is: the pièce de résistance.

Most importantly of all, Forever Young‘s opening scene weaves all the above elements into a scene that introduces main character Capt. Daniel McCormick in characteristic moment. What does this one opening scene tell us about Daniel?

We learn:

  • he is a test pilot
  • he loves being a test pilot
  • he’s skilled
  • he’s good-natured
  • he’s reckless
  • he’s funny
  • he’s good under pressure

All that in less than four minutes! By time Daniel brings the crippled plane to a dramatic landing at the end of that four minutes, we’re hooked. The beginning’s skillful introduction of his character means we’re more than willing to follow Daniel through the entirety of his adventure.

Make sure you’re checking these important elements off your list for your opening scene. You’ll hook readers–and, just as importantly, you will have created a solid setup that will carry all the rest of your story to follow.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you introduced your protagonist in your opening scene? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great lesson! Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. You’re welcome. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I think I saw that movie a long time ago.

    You noted excellent points. It’s hard to follow a character throughout a novel if I don’t connect with them right away.

    I hope I made that connection in my WIP. *nervous*

  4. It’s one of my favorite movies. Beginnings are tough (mine get written and rewritten), but this one nails it.

  5. I often say I blame Mel Gibson in Forever Young for the unexpected conception of our second child.

    I took Linda to see this for a rare date night, leaving our five-year-old daughter with a sitter overnight. It was one of those films that was funny, romantic, spirited, winsome, touching, all that stuff. We saw it in January of 1993. Ean was born that October, and that was it – no more Mel Gibson romantic adventures for the missus! ‘Braveheart,’ yes! ‘What Women Want,’ no!

  6. Ah, the suggestive powe of fiction!

  7. Another great one! You know your stuff. Thanks – that’s a great thing to remember, putting the MC in a characteristic moment ;o) Going to check out your interview!

  8. It’s funny how putting the MC in a characteristic moment can be harder than it looks – but how the whole story falls into place so much easier when you do.

  9. That was a wonderful guest post and vlog! Good food for thought in terms of introducing a facinating character. I can already see how I’m missing on this.

    Plus, I think writing is possibly the healthiest way to handle the various characters and plots that wander through our mind’s eye. I often wish they would all go away. But then, I would be kind of lonely.

    It’s been a while since I gave you a blog award, so I hope you’ll accept this new one. You don’t need to do the whole award thingy, just accept it in appreciation of what you do.

  10. Thanks, Mary Anne! I agree that writing is one of the healthiest outlets for our semi-schizophrenia. I have yet to get to the point of wishing my characters would leave me alone. Most of the time I wish the rest of the world would leave me alone, so I would have more time to spend with my characters!

  11. Belle L. says

    That makes so much sense because I know I was caught up in the movie right away when I watched “Forever Young”.

  12. It’s a great movie. Brilliant all the way through.

  13. Thanks Katie for that information. I have not seen the film(movie). I will see if it is on DH’s shelf and view it, there is a valuable lesson waiting for me. Oh, and Mel of course!

  14. It’s worth watching just on its own merits (a young Mel Gibson being one of them. ;).

  15. So true, KM! I love it when a novel/story allows me to connect right away *smiling*

  16. I’m willing to wait through a slow beginning to give a story a second chance, but the stories that grab you right from the start, those are always extra special.

  17. I love your guest post over at The Master’s Artist! I could really relate to it!

  18. Thanks! I’m glad others relate to my wackiness.

  19. I always thought to start with a dialogue. Of course, with a small conflict. 🙂
    That is my favorite openings, with around 2-3 questions raised. More than that, and it gets too complicated

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think it was Nancy Kress who said that when she started using dialogue on the first page of her stories, that’s when she started getting published.

  20. Thanks for sharing your tips on this part of writing Katie. I agree that is a great way to hook our readers. I remember seeing that movie when it came out.

    Loved that movie.

    Eric

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s a great movie. One of my favorites! And that opening sequence is one of the all-time best.

  21. Katherine says

    I want my character to do/edit an important interview for her blog in the opening scene.

  22. Yay! My first chapter ticks off everything. And the following few chapters do pretty well for other characters as well. 😀

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