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Why Opening With a Characteristic Moment Is So Important

characteristic momentOne of your first scene’s most important jobs is introducing the main character as someone readers will find worth their time. This is best accomplished by opening with the protagonist in a “characteristic moment.”

The characteristic moment will either put leading characters in a situation that shows them performing an action that will figure prominently later in the plot and/or it will illustrate key points in their personalities.

The opening scene of Howard Hawks’s classic western film Red River nails the characteristic moment. The movie begins with the main character, Thomas Dunson (played by John Wayne), leaving a wagon train to go his own way. The wagon train leader protests, saying Dunson signed a contract to finish the trip and that the train will need him as they enter Indian country. Dunson replies, “I signed nothing. If I had I’d stay.”

Red River John Wayne Howard Hawks

Red River (1948), United Artists.

This line of dialogue, by itself, presents significant insight into the character. Viewers realize this is a man who plays by the rules, as he sees them, in a black and white fashion. When, later in the movie, a desperate Dunson takes it upon himself to enforce, by any means necessary, the contract his cattle hands signed, his personality’s dark turn is a mirror image of the one in the opening scene.

Characteristic moments are important because they provide immediate proof of the worth of your character—proof that will grab readers from page one. Characteristic moments are equally important as foreshadowing and framing. This first glimpse of your characters will prepare readers for the course they will take in the following pages and, as a result, will create a coherent, resonant story, from beginning to end.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What characteristic moment introduces your protagonist? 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.


  1. Sandy Westendorf says

    Yes, I open with a struggle, my character is dealing with. I want to set a question in the reader’s mind which is not answered until the last chapter of the book.

  2. Thanks so much for this insight. I will have to look again at my opening.


  3. @Sandy: Two birds with one stone! Opening question and characteristic moment all wrapped into one. Good job.

    @Scott: Glad the post was useful. Thanks for reading!

  4. Great post, That is just what I am trying to do. However you put it nicely in a quick sentence. Finding the right length of scene that makes your readers go ahhhh this is the character… I identify with her, while still having things that need to be explained. Add in the right amount of action or intrigue and you have a fab introduction.

    Now where do I find that magic wand.

    Many thanks for your awesome blog


  5. The trickiest bit about the characteristic moment is somehow making it move the plot forward as well. Introducing our characters isn’t so tough. What’s tough is making sure the introduction is the first domino in the row of plot dominoes.

  6. Before putting the opening scene on paper, I turn it over and over. When I have it down, I sit down and write, leaving out the first 1/3 of the scene so that we arrive late but just in time to see the fur fly. If a character can fry a kettle of fish on the fly, right out of the gate, I am definitely going to stay tuned!

  7. Flying fur, frying fish, and characters busting out of the gate – sounds like a fun ride to me!

  8. Good point. I have always done this instinctively, but never knew there was a term for it. Amazing what you can learn on the Internet. LOL

  9. Never discount a writer’s instincts. They’re usually right on the money.

  10. awesome example, KM! I actually do this in my current WIP–one of the MC’s was described in a previous work as “a thief.” Opening scene, she’s picking a pocket… ;o)

    great tip~ <3

  11. Great opener! Inherent action, tension, and suspense – and that all-important characteristic moment. Sounds like a winner.

  12. Shoot. And here I thought all my opening scene had to do was hook the reader and make them read on. The pressure mounts.

  13. The opening chapter is one of the most complex parts of any story. If you can master it, nothing will stop you!

  14. Aha! Mine does, and I didn’t even realize it. Thank you!

  15. You go! That’s the way to do it.

  16. Yes, my book opens with my character doing something good for someone, that he’s a quick thinker, and that he has to tell some white lies, but he doesn’t like to.

  17. First book? Oh, yes. Two characters for the price of one, with a load of tension and implied history.

    Second book? Well, you get a good look at how she deals with being woken in the middle of the night, and a two-sentence catch-up from book one. We’ll see if it’s still as strong as I think it is when I finish the book…

  18. Quick-thinking characters are hard to beat. Only thing better is a character with a quick wit!

  19. @Eric: Sequels often offer a lot more wiggle room in presenting a characteristic moment, since most readers are already familiar with the character.

  20. @K.M. That’s a good thing to keep in mind. As it is, I’m finding that starting to write the second book of a series is a lot like starting to read the second book of a series (I happen to be doing both right now.) It’s a fresh start, a reintroduction, but the previous book is still looking over your shoulder to see what’s happening next. If that makes any sense 😛

  21. I’ve never written a sequel or a series, but that makes total sense. What we’ve written in the past always looks over our shoulders – one way or another. It’s both our baggage and our catalyst.

  22. this is an interesting thought. I didn’t conciously do it, but thinking upon what I’ve written, I believe I did 🙂

    yay me!

  23. Good for you! If you have good instincts as a writer, you’re halfway to perfection.

  24. Great post, short and sweet. And, thanks for the video transcript. I find it quicker and easier to read content.

    I try to begin my stories with a characteristic moment giving an idea of what the character is about.

  25. Glad you enjoyed it! I’m much more of a reader than a watcher myself.

  26. Deborah A Green says

    My protagonist (at age 12) is watching from a side as his kid brother (age 9) take on two bullies his own age and size without interfering. When two older kids move in on the kid brother, my protagonist steps in and takes them both on.

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