5 Special Tips for Writing Your First Scene

Your Ultimate First Chapter Checklist, Pt. 2: Writing the Opening Scene

5 Special Tips for Writing Your First Scene PINTERESTFirst chapters are complicated, which is why writers everywhere need a first chapter checklist. But even the checklists are complicated! Which is why I’ve broken down our exploration of excellent first chapters into three parts.

Last week, we talked about what is, arguably, your first chapter’s most important job: hooking readers. But if you’re going to provide readers with all kinds of juicy hooks in your opening line, opening situation, and characteristic moment, then you have to a place to put them. Your story’s opening scene is the box that holds all the goodies.

>>Read Part 1 of this series: Hooking Readers

In many ways, the opening scene is a scene just like every other. Like any proper scene, the opening scene must fulfill basic principles of structure—a beginning, a middle and an end. But the opening scene is also special in many ways. It takes the normal duties of a normal scene and amplifies them into a microcosm of the entire story to come.

This scene is chosen not just to advance the plot, but to introduce it. Learn how to ace each of the scene requirements and then add in the special sauce that will make your first chapter strong enough and clear enough to launch the entire line of dominoes that forms yours plot.

First Chapter Checklist #2: Writing the Opening Scene

1. Introduce the Opening Scene’s Main Character

Story begins with character. The earlier you can introduce a character in your scene (and thus your book), the better your chances of hooking readers. It’s true some stories, especially older ones, open with “atmosphere” that focuses more on physical or social settings or even theme (Thomas Hardy’s classic Return of the Native spends its entire first chapter on scenery). But it requires a master’s touch, a sure understanding of language, and the right genre to make this work as a successful hook for patient readers.

Either way, you’re going to have to introduce characters sooner or later. Aim for sooner. As the engine driving your story’s conflict, your character is what makes the story move.

Your opening scene has the added challenge of introducing a character whom your readers are meeting for the very first time. When you write your character’s name on the first page, you must surround him with just the right amount of descriptive details. These include:

  • Descriptive details to indicate gender, age, possibly occupation, and pertinent aspects of appearance and sometimes clothing.
  • Drama and/or dialogue that brings personality to life.
  • A sense of something missing or out of place in the character’s life—either physically or spiritually (which we’ll discuss more in the section on scene goal below).

You have the space of the entire scene to convey most of these details. Don’t info dump in the beginning. Choose early sentences carefully to immediately give readers as full a sense of your character as possible without overwhelming them.

(By the way, although your opening scene won’t necessarily open with your protagonist, that’s always the best route when possible. The first character your readers meet will be the character to whom they will instinctively want to attach their loyalties. They want to meet your protagonist; don’t make them wait unduly.)

Example From Wayfarer:

As I did last week, I’m going to continue using examples from the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published superhero historical Wayfarer, which opens with this initial introduction of my protagonist:

In the hamlet of Affery, folk cherished the plague.

Will Hardy was not one of those folk. In all truth, he held no belief whatever in a plague he’d never had sight of in all his life.

That was why he ran, head up, arms pumping, directly towards the source of it.

This names the character, shows him wanting something (although readers won’t immediately know what it is) and moving toward it, as well as telling us something about Will’s slightly cynical nature.

Other details are sown throughout the chapter:

  • Will’s age: “She could not be more than eight and ten—no more than year younger than he.”
  • A pertinent detail about Will’s appearance: “Will was no hulking lad, but this Dr. Silas undercut even him by at least a hand’s span.”
  • An indication of Will’s occupation and station in the world: “’I’m a good worker. Anyone hereabouts will tell you. Ask my master at the forge, Tom Colville.’”

2. Establish the Main Character’s Scene Goal

Although we’re discussing them separately here, character and goal should never be separate. The moment your character shows up on the scene, he should be in pursuit of something. He wants something. But he’s not just sitting around wanting it. He’s already up in motion, pursuing it.

Three things to note here:

1. The Right Way to Understand In Medias Res

Opening with the character already in pursuit of a goal is the essence of how to open in medias res (“in the middle of things”) and to do it well. There’s a common misconception that opening in medias res means opening in the middle of fireworks—battles, car chases, explosive arguments, etc.

Nothing wrong with these openings, but forcing the action too early in the plot or too explosively can sometimes make it difficult to include all the elements on the first chapter checklist. It’s just as easy—sometimes easier—to hook readers with a small, pertinent character goal as it is an in-progress terrorist attack.

2. The Opening Scene Goal’s Relationship to the Main Plot Goal

Your character’s goal in this opening scene must be related to the main plot goal she will develop later on. But it almost certainly will not be the main plot goal. This is for the simple reason that the main plot goal will not entirely form until the protagonist fully encounters the main conflict as she enters the Second Act.

In most stories, the protagonist won’t get even get her first full look at the main conflict/goal until the Call to Adventure at the Inciting Event halfway through the First Act (around the 12% mark).

Instead, the goal in this opening scene will be setup for that Call to Adventure. What happens in this scene, however ancillary to the main conflict, will be the first domino pushing the character (probably unawares) toward that Inciting Event. This means the opening goal will be related to the main conflict, but not in a way the character is yet fully conscious of.

3. Opening With a Sequel Instead of a Scene

In discussions of scene structure, I’m often asked whether a book can open with the reaction or “sequel” half of a scene, in the aftermath of an off-screen scene disaster. The short answer is “yes.” In fact, opening with the character in full-on reaction mode to something earth-shattering can create an excellent hook. But the character must then immediately progress from reaction to a new goal. Don’t open with the character sitting around thinking; open with the character in action, pursuing something important.

Example From Wayfarer:

As we’ve seen, Wayfarer opens with the protagonist in literal action—running as fast as he can across a field. Readers understand immediately that he wants something. This provides a little space for me to wait until a few paragraphs later to reveal this something is a job:

The doctor’s eyes lit up. He grinned, revealing a full yellowed set of teeth. “Now we come to it. Do you know why I asked you here?”

“Your note suggested you’d pay the fare for a likely boy to transport something of value to London.”

3. Establish or Foreshadow the Antagonistic Force via Conflict

In any properly-structured scene, the next step after establishing your character’s goal is obstructing that goal with conflict. The character wants something, but getting that something isn’t a straightforward proposition. Something or someone interferes, causing the protagonist to:

1. Fail in gaining her desire.

2. Gain her desire but with consequences.

3. Partially fail in gaining her desire, forcing her to formulate a new strategy.

In your opening scene, this conflict should be even more faceted than usual. This conflict will introduce the main plot by either establishing or foreshadowing the story’s main antagonistic force.

Now, wait a minute. You’re probably thinking, But didn’t you just say the opening scene doesn’t introduce the main conflict because the protagonist hasn’t even seen it yet? Too true.

The important distinction here is that in the Second Act, the character’s main goal will have met the main obstacle/antagonistic force, creating the main conflict. Either the main goal or the main obstacle—or both—will not yet be present in the story’s beginning.

But—and here’s the important part—neither of these things come out of nowhere. They develop from seeds of motivation, on both the protagonist’s and antagonist’s parts, and from causal circumstances. Your opening scene needs to present or at least foreshadow the first of these causal circumstances.

Here’s an easy rule of thumb to ask yourself when deciding if your opening scene’s conflict is pertinent enough to the main conflict to come: If you removed the goal/conflict of this opening scene, would the protagonist still find his main goal or be able to meet the antagonist in the Second Act? If the answer is no, then the opening scene’s current conflict is likely too ancillary.

Even if you choose to open with a segment that is essentially a self-contained episode (as is currently popular in many action movies), that opening episode still needs to plant seeds for the conflict to come.

Example From Wayfarer:

In my opening scene, Will wants the strange Dr. Silas to hire him to take something to London. That’s his goal. But Dr. Silas proves unreliable and, after Will loses his temper, refuses to hire him. Mortified to realize a London gentleman witnessed the exchange, Will is then intrigued when that man offers him a new opportunity for finding his way to the city.

This opening goal (Will wants to go to London) and opening conflict (Will doesn’t get along with his potential employer) are not the main goal and conflict Will will encounter in the Second Act. But they are directly pertinent to setting up first the Call to Adventure at the Inciting Event (in which Dr. Silas is directly involved in Will’s gaining super-speed), in Will’s eventual sojourn in London, and in Will’s primary plot struggle of protecting his master from the antagonist. Just as importantly, this scene “disaster” is what forces Will to take specific actions in the following chapters, completing the necessary setup in the First Act.

4. Introduce Other Important Characters

Many scenes in your story will introduce new characters, but none will introduce them with more power than your first chapter. The number of characters you’re able to introduce in this opening scene will depend greatly on the choreography of the scene itself.

Here are a few rules:

1. Don’t Overload Characters

Don’t feel as if you need to introduce all the characters right away. It’s better to focus on a few in the first chapter, then sow in the rest later on. Particularly for characters who are important to the story, you will want to give yourself the time and space to introduce and develop them properly. This may mean saving certain character introductions for the second or third chapters—or even later.

2. Try to Include at Least One Supporting Character

The most interesting opening situations are almost always those in which your protagonist is interacting with another character—preferably in dialogue. As arguably the only true form of “showing” in a story, dialogue is one of the most engaging ways to grab readers and disseminate information (preferably more by implication than outright explanation). I think it was writing instructor Nancy Kress who observed that her books didn’t start selling until she started putting dialogue on the first page.

3. Remember That Early Characters Are the Most Important

Here’s another rule of thumb: The earlier an element (character, setting, theme, plot device, etc.) is introduced in the story, the more importance readers will attach to it.

In short, your opening chapters should be reserved for your most important characters. This is not the time to introduce arbitrary elements that will never again be mentioned. In itself, this is yet another reason why it’s best to open with your protagonist where possible. But don’t stop there: open with her most important relationship (or at least the most important relationship currently available within the story).

Example From Wayfarer:

Wayfarer‘s opening chapter introduces the protagonist, his love interest, his primary antagonist, and a crucial catalyst character. Almost right from the beginning, Will has someone to talk to. The introductory information is largely disseminated via dialogue and much of it by implication through the conflict of that dialogue. (Other important characters are introduced at the earliest possible moment in subsequent chapters.)

5. Ground the Setting: Place, Time, Season, Weather

As in any scene, it’s important to ground readers in the setting. They need to have a visual sense of the physical space in which the character finds himself. As always, the importance of these details is magnified in the opening chapter. Not only are you introducing details of the scene, you are also introducing details of the story itself.

  • Where is the story taking place?
  • Where are the characters oriented within the setting?
  • When is the story taking place (year, season, month, day, hour)?
  • What’s the weather?

As with character details, much of this information doesn’t need to be shared immediately—it can be dissemminated throughout the scene. But readers need to be grounded with at least a few pertinent facts right away.

Example From Wayfarer:

I “cheat” a bit by opening Chapter One with the informative header: “Northern Surrey, September 1820.” I then follow up with an informative paragraph that further emphasizes the season, the physical locale, and the weather:

After last month’s barley harvest, the fields lay in barren contentment, even with his feet flinging soil clods. The sun burnt through the crisp autumn breeze and heated his face. He was belated, and considering what awaited him, that was far worse than any fabled plague.

***

Your opening scene is make or break territory for your book. Not only will it be a key factor in determining whether readers engage with your story, it will also plant the first stone in what will either be a strong foundation or a weak foundation for your entire plot to come. Make the right decisions about these five aspects of your opening scene, and you won’t have anything to worry about!

Next week, we’ll explore your First Chapter Checklist #3: How to Set Up Theme and Plot in Your First Chapter.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What was the biggest challenge for you in your opening scene? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Northern surrey, great, that where I used to live, although not in 1820! The county lines may have changed.

    Loving this stuff, really forces me to think through the early parts of my story and sets me up for a more effective redraft of the first chapter and prologue (if I have one). Finally getting some time to tend to my writing now, but I think it also forces thinking through details of your character and how that works out in practice e.g. what do you reveal and when. Clarity is essential though in terms of, as a writer, knowing exactly who your character is and what he/she is like and how events may or may not change them/cause them to react.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree with regards to clarity. Gaining clarity in the first chapter is all about understanding the overall story with clarity–either via outlines or revision.

  2. This is great advice. I hadn’t really thought about opening with a ‘sequel’ instead of a scene, but that does make sense.

    The problem I see in a lot of first chapters (in my own writing too) is that they are often filled with way too much backstory for a reader to digest. I like what you’re saying here. Introduce the main character, goal, setting, and then get to the action.

    • I’ve DNF’d so many books that start with a ton of backstory. They introduce this great character and then slooooow the thing way the heck down while explaining everything we “need” know. Snooze. I’m trying to avoid this in my story but people keep telling me to add more backstory. I’m confused!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I find it’s sometimes useful to go ahead and dump all that backstory in the first draft’s first chapter, then you can go back and sort through what’s really on a need-to-know basis for readers at this point.

  3. Solid checklist, as we expect from you.

    So much of it comes down to, “If this were the only thing the reader read, would it give them the right sense of WHO will be dealing with WHAT– especially the synergy of why this is the most interesting Who for this What?” And of course if it isn’t good enough (or streamlined enough) to be the only thing they could read, it will be where they stop.

    So much of the trick could be the difference between starting with a sub-conflict that still points toward the main one (like Will failing the interview he comes for) and taking too long to show what’s really involved. Many prologues are a common failure here; any start away from the real protagonist and setting needs to sell itself as an interesting side-view of what’s really ahead.

    Also, I’ve learned that starting “in the action” often fails if there’s actual shooting going on. Any immediate crisis narrows the situation so much it’s hard to make clear how the character is unique; it’s hard to make him feel like a rebel with a past when all he has time for at first is to duck bullets. I like to think many stories have a default opening moment: “two minutes before the explosion.”

    Most of all, first chapters are *hard.* They might be twelve times more work than anything else: three times trickier to juggle it all times four times as important as other chapters (and that’s a very polite understatement). Then again, the best ones that pinpoint their theme and character and present it that well are a real joy to pull off.

    And this list is a fine start to holding that together. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great points. First chapters–especially the first page!–are an extension of the back-cover blurb. Readers flip to the first chapter right away to get a sense for the entire story to follow. If that first page doesn’t give them what they want, they’re unlikely to read on to discover whether or not later chapters deliver.

  4. My biggest challenge is that my two protagonists function as the other’s antagonist. One protagonist is on a negative arc, seeking revenge on the other protagonist, who is on a flat arc. They are both in the first chapter currently but the feedback I’ve gotten indicates I should probably start further back with the opening chapter solely focused on the character with the more dramatic arc (my revenge seeking character) and then introduce my other protagonist in chapter 2. I’m still in the outlining phase so any major changes I have to make should be relatively painless.

    • Scribalist says:

      It may not be bad to open with both your main characters, as long as you treat them as representing different points of view on some situation, activity, or bias that they are both focused on.

      Either one could be disguised somehow or in an alternate persona or simply a character representing the main, creating conflict without the need for “all hell to break loose,” so to speak.

      Still, you can give them seperate arcs as you have indicated, with their own chapters. That’s a good option in itself, especially for a novel length work, imo.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s great when you can introduce the two most pertinent characters together in the first chapter, but that’s actually very frequently impossible. Nothing wrong with introducing them separately in a one-two of opening chapters.

  5. I have 8 major characters (2 of them c0-protagonists), and for the re-write I believe I’ve come up with a great way to have them in the same room without dump-introducing the other 6 all at once.

    The first thing will be the one protag interrupting the others’ plot-related meeting with an act of clumsiness, because that’s his character early on – he neglected his training.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s awesome. Introducing multiple characters early on is one of the trickiest challenges.

  6. I am really enjoying the way you use your own writing for an example. It makes me look forward to the book.

    My opening scene is my main characters witnessing the antagonist bringing in another prisoner. My MC schemes to get the new captive’s attention and make friends so he won’t be lonely anymore. I’m a little worried that having him witness the action might sideline him too much. I don’t think it does, since he’s still reacting even though he’s locked up, but I have wondered if I’m wrong.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks! It was a fun book to write. 🙂

      As long as your character’s opening goal is a domino knocking over the next scene’s goal and so on, up to the Inciting Event, you should be fine.

  7. Ms. Albina says:

    My opening is Lotus will be in her bedroom on the top floor the fifth floor when Priestess Selena comes in with three gowns and then will tell her that she will get married to someone she has not met. Her bedroom is big not as big as her parent’s bedroom.

    Her parents are talking to a shapeshifter named Valentine about telling Lotus, she has an arranged marriage and that she will be married by her next birthday. Lotus does cry because of the fact she has not met her betrothed who is a merman who is mortal.

    Lotus also will journey to a fire with a fire that happens in it. So she and the merman are the main characters even though he is her love interest.

  8. “If the answer is no, then the opening scene’s current conflict is likely too ancillary.”

    Should no be yes?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nope, yes is yes. 😉 If the character *can* find his goal, then the first scene’s goal/conflict is probably just fine.

  9. Susan Policoff says:

    I’ve opened my novel, which I’m revising/editing with a chapter that happens four years before the rest of the book, but sets up what comes after. The MC and the most important person in her life are not quite arguing, about a trip he’s going on, though an ice storm has brought most transportation to a standstill. He dies at the end of chapter one in an accident related to the weather, and everything she does after that is because she is unable to process or even face her grief and anger.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’re opening with the backstory Ghost. I don’t always recommend this since it basically amounts to a prologue, with all a prologue’s potential pitfalls, but it can certainly be effective in certain situations.

  10. Susan Policoff says:

    Oh and btw, great series on opening chapters!

  11. At the moment, my WIP opens with four (short) scenes that show the main protagonist growing up. Only scene 5 (the “proper” beginning of chapter 1) shows him as the adult he will be for the rest of the story. I know this is a bit of a challenge, and I know I could theoretically weave the first 4 scenes in as flashbacks later, but (at the moment) to me they feel good the way they are: They do give a lot of hints about my world, the mention the key event (if that is what it is … something that happened in the past but has a big impact on my main protagonist), they do introduce my character (even as a boy, he already is showing the traits he will have as an adult), they have conflict, hinting at the main conflict. What happens in those 4 scenes shapes my protagonist (although there is of course more to his background, but this is revealed later), and I think it is better to start the main story knowing these things. – Of course nothing is set in stone … and I will look at them with a magnifying glass as soon as I finish my first draft. (At the moment I am in act III, with my hero being busy plotting how to take the antagonist out, so we both do not have the time to go back and fiddle with chapter 1 just now! ;-))

  12. Tom Youngjohn says:

    Typo alert: “don’t make they wait unduly” Otherwise excellent. But I do need to pause to go look up the definition of “belated.”

  13. Marilyn Carvin says:

    Historical novel, California 1844-46. Struggling to change first chapter, as my protagonist is marooned in Chile where he learns Spanish and learns he can get land in Calif. (His own land is major goal, he thinks.) Have been told should start in CA., but his Chilean experiences are so character-revealing and foreshadowing, it’s a “darling” I don’t want to kill. Just doesn’t seem to work if I start in CA. (Actually I start at a Phil. dock where reader learns in few lines of dialogue his goals, his devotion to his brother, and why he is sailing off for wherever when he doesn’t want to.) Feel like arbitrary rule to say a”driving to” or ”’sailing to” start is a no-no. Understand, if it’s just a backstory dump while going somewhere. But this isn’t.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Instinctively, I would be inclined to recommend cutting the Chilean scene. But when in doubt, recruit betas. If they like it and/or are bored in reading it, that’s the best signal either way.

  14. I’ve been editing my first superhero story and the prologue is including Amelia and Vance as kids, and Vance is an inventor in this.

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