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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

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

  2. 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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