Don’t spend too much worrying about getting your opening scene perfect during first draft. You may find, when you get to the end, that the story needs to open in a completely different spot or this particular scene never takes place at all, so don’t get too attached to it until the whole story is written.
At that point, you’ll take a good hard look at your opening scene, especially the first few paragraphs, and ask yourself if it is pulling its weight. Will it hook the reader? Which leads to the question: what must it accomplish?
The job of the paragraphs on the book’s first page is to grab the reader’s attention and force her to turn the page to read the rest of the scene. That means you have no time to waste to rivet her attention and draw her in. Those first paragraphs are only 200-300 words, and they carry a lot of pressure with them.
Here are the guidelines I recommend.
Take time to craft a killer opening line. If you can’t find a killer one, make sure it is solid and interesting. Choose to start with an action, some dialogue, or a single line of internal thought. In every case, it must be compelling.
Choose the point-of-view character carefully and use his or her name first in the story. Who is the right person to be introduced first? Hero or heroine? Good guy or bad guy? Your first-introduced character is normally assumed to be the person the story is about, the character the reader should root for. The only absolute rule for writing fiction is: Don’t confuse the reader.
Put two characters on stage, not one. Why? Because one person alone will almost always want to go introspective on you. They’ll want to share their emotions and, if you can’t get them stopped, their entire family history. But by then, the reader will have closed the book and set it back on the shelf.
Put two characters on stage, not three or more. Why? It’s hard for the reader to keep them straight until they get to know them as individuals. Choose to introduce even a large cast one at a time over a number of pages—or even chapters. If you go to a party and someone introduces you to half a dozen people, you’ll have trouble remembering who’s who. Same with your reader, who doesn’t have the visual clues you do in real life. You can bring in a third character a page or two in.
Give those two characters something to argue about. Give them dialogue that is more attention-getting than what’s for dinner.
Give the characters a compelling problem, whether it’s between the two of them or whether there’s an outside force like a blizzard or a meteor. Don’t let them sit around with a cup of tea and visit. Give them something that requires their full attention at this moment.
Give the absolute bare minimum of thoughts and setting to explain the most pressing issue, and no more. Leave plenty of questions. Questions pull the reader along. Let the full situation and how they got there slowly unfold over the course of several chapters.
Keep the paragraphs short. Save the longer blocks for a few pages in when you’ve earned the right to start filling in how the characters came to this spot. Here, on the first page, you want lots of white space. White space is easier on the eyes and gives the feeling of more movement in the plot.
- How can you hook your reader and make them turn that first page – and then the next one? click to tweet
- Grab your reader’s attention on the first page. Here’s how from @towritestory click to tweet
Command of language
Now look at the actual words. Are they strong and specific, or are they bland and generic? Adjective/noun pairings can sometimes be thinned to a more precise noun. Adverb/verb combos can usually be replaced by a single strong verb. Go for specificity.
Use alliteration and repetition purposefully, not accidentally. Same with sentence fragments. Also, you’ll want to tear out empty words here. Get rid of weasel words.
Now that you have the first 300 words or so pared and tightened, do the same with the remainder of the first scene. Keep your characters to a minimum, give them compelling dialogue, action, and conflict, and make every word the strongest you can.
Let those pages turn!
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