Helping Writers Become Authors

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

5 Special Tips for Writing Your First Scene

First 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:

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:

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: Does the goal/conflict of this opening scene set up the protagonist’s finding his main goal or being 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.

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.

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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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