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7 Easy Rules for Writing a Novel's Opening Scene


One of the most difficult decisions a novelist has to make is how to open a story. A story's opening scene must attract the reader's attention well enough to make them want to commit to reading the entire book, so it's not a decision to make lightly. Even the most seasoned writers will admit that the choice for an opening chapter is likely to change over the course of writing the novel, making the opening scene an ever-evolving (and sometimes elusive) goal.

One piece of advice that many authors give regarding determining your opening scene is to look at the opening scenes of some of your favorite books and note the writing tactics used. Although contemporary novels generally fall under different writing styles and rules than older works, you can look at how other authors within your intended genre have successfully began their stories and use the same techniques for beginning your own.

Despite the confusion, there really is a perfect way to begin a novel, and we've gathered for you seven easy rules for writing your novel's opening scene.

Rule #1: Introduce the voice and setting of your story

One of the most important goals of your novel's opening scene should be to give your reader an idea of the voice and setting of the story. Sometimes, this might include introducing the main character. Other times, it might be introducing the antagonist. It might also be a foreshadowing of what will incite your character to begin his or her journey. Waiting too long to do this will risk losing your reader's interest, so make sure you write these introductions while starting as close to the inciting incident as possible (more about this in Rule #2). This ensures that the scene will be exciting to read rather than simple description or character introduction.

Rule #2: Foreshadow the inciting incident

The inciting incident in a novel is an event that creates the initial problem, and then sets the stage for the story. It's an episode, plot point, or hook that attracts the reader to the tale you are telling. This incident explains why the protagonist does what he/she does, and thrusts him/her into the main action of the story.

Your opening scene should include information that either foreshadows or leads to the inciting incident. There needs to be information relating to your main character's journey, and how that journey lands him or her into this particular setting. If you've studied Joseph Campbell's description of the "hero's journey," you know that across mythical narrative structure, there is a moment when the hero is called to adventure.

One of the easiest and most effective ways of knowing how to open your story is to first know what the inciting incident will be, then work slightly backwards from it. For example, consider the story of Labyrinth. The inciting incident is when the Goblin King steals Sarah's baby brother and she sets off on a journey to get him back. The opening scene, therefore, introduces us to Sarah and reveals that she is attracted to fantasy and play-acting. It sets the stage for the inciting incident that is to come, while introducing the reader to the protagonist and world in which she lives.

Rule #3: Avoid overdoing character description or scenery

This might seem contradictory to Rule #1, but the point to keep in mind here is show, don't tell. While it's important to set the stage in your opening scene by introducing the reader to the main character(s) and setting, overdoing it through excessive description of either will make for a dull opening scene. Less is best and your writing will be more engaging if you only offer snippets of information instead of a great deal of details.

The easiest way to avoid this is to remember that there should be tension in your opening scene. It's hard to maintain tension throughout excessive description or backstory. Rather than long sentences describing the protagonist or antagonist, let his or her actions speak for themselves in showing the reader some pertinent pieces of information about what makes them tick. In the same sense, save extensive scenery description for later in the novel, if you plan to include it at all.

Think of your opening scene as the first scene of a movie, or the first scene that occurs before the opening credits start in a television series. It should be highly visual and fast paced, providing useful clues about the character's journey and what the inciting incident will be.

Rule #4: Avoid backstory but consider offering a flash forward

Just as too much character or scenic description in the opening scene can bog down the story before it even gets going, so can backstory. Your opening scene is not the place to reveal why your protagonist or antagonist is the way he or she is. You could foreshadow small clues for characterization, but the bulk of it should follow later in the story.

However, your opening scene is a great opportunity to provide a flash forward of an important plot point. Not only does this engage your reader with an action-packed scene—it also is a "hook" that will ensure your reader keeps turning pages past the opening of your novel.

Rule #5: Show how the main character's world is about to be changed

This rule will help you keep your opening scene exciting and important for the plot to move forward. Since we know that the best story is one in which the protagonist's life is inevitably changed through a definitive character arc, using your novel's opening scene to show a few details of the changes that are to come is a great way to ensure your reader immediately empathizes with the protagonist (or fears the antagonist).

Perhaps your character has undergone a tragedy and has decided to leave his job on the police force in an effort to escape the emotional pain of what occurred. Your inciting incident would then become an event that convinces your character to remain on the job – perhaps the murder or kidnapping of someone close to him that must be avenged. In this case, you would want your opening scene to be of the incident that will eventually incite your protagonist to stay the course and seek justice. Following chapters could go into more detail about your hero's journey, but the reader is put immediately into the action in the opening scene, and that makes for exciting storytelling.

Rule #6: Start with something exciting

Speaking of exciting—while you can start your novel with a laid-back scene, starting it with something exciting happening is a far better choice if you want to hook your readers and keep them reading. Consider author Dan Brown's method of beginning The Da Vinci Code with a prologue in which Louvre curator and Priory of Sion grand master Jacques Saunière is murdered by a seemingly psychotic antagonist. Chapter one then moves immediately to Robert Langdon, the renowned symbologist who would be called in to investigate the murder. Between these two opening scenes and without a lot of detail, the reader understands at least partial motive of the protagonist and the antagonist, and is therefore provided with a good reason to keep turning pages. The reader is thrown immediately into the plot and that is solid writing.

Rule #7: Start at the last minute possible before the inciting incident

If you've determined your plot's inciting incident, and worked your way backwards, as suggested in Rule #2, you should make a point to start your novel at the last minute possible before that inciting incident occurs. Some authors (Dan Brown, for example) even make their opening scene or prologue the inciting incident itself, although the reader isn't fully aware of that fact until later in the story, when the protagonist makes a choice to leave his or her comfort zone and begin a journey.

As mentioned for Rule #6, throwing your reader directly into the plot is solid, exciting writing. If Shakespeare had not included the prologue on his beloved work, Romeo and Juliet, the story would not have been nearly as engaging from the opening scene.

Ultimately, the purpose of the opening scene is to attract your reader to the story and compel them to read more. This can be done in several ways and what works for one writer might not be the best course for another. The important thing to keep in mind is that your opening scene might not be set in stone as you write your novel, and will likely be an ever-evolving part of your story. You might also need to experiment with several different opening scenes to determine which best fits your overall goal for the book.

With a little experimentation and a lot of patience, you'll find the right scene to draw readers into your story. As with any writing, be willing to adapt and rewrite, and you'll eventually have that "ah ha" moment when you find the perfect opening scene.

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