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Open Sesame--Writing Opening Scenes that Open Readers' Eyes & Minds (with Examples)
Life changed for them forever the moment they clicked on this article!
Well, okay, this article might not have as drastic an effect. Even so, we hope to change the way you create opening scenes. So, keep perusing for secrets about the elements you should include to make every opening scene a hit!
Think back to the first time you picked up your now-favorite book series. More often than not, it's the first scene…or even line that clinches the deal between the reader and a book. Either that, or it turns them off so bad they never pick up that specific book again!
In other words, the way a story opens is crucial. It will convince a new-to-your-work reader to take a risk on you. So, your first few lines cannot be boring. That's because dull and uninteresting beginnings will cost you more readers, and you'd best learn how to pen down opening scenes that blow minds.
Here are the ingredients to assist you in cooking up mindblowing opening scenes:
A Grabs-By-The-Lapels First Sentence
Sure, first scenes are crucial but so is how you intend to begin. Of course, we refer to the first line of your novel. Stellar first lines will always trump the other billion sentences that follow them. Well, that will be true for most readers.
The best way to learn how to put together great first lines is to see how the pros do it. Below, you'll see opening scenes from different popular books.
Tip: pay attention to how the maestros leverage them to create space for readers' dialogues, questions, and development:
Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five
"All this happened, more or less."
Gaiman in American Gods
"Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don't-f***-with-me-enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife."
Patterson in Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment
"The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective. Take right now, for instance."
Tolkien in The Hobbit
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
Kristoff in Nevernight
"People often sh*t themselves when they die."
Eugenides in Middlesex
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."
Thomas in The H8 U Give
"I shouldn't have come to this party. I'm not even sure I belong at this party. That's not on some bougie shit, either. There are just some places where it's not enough to be me. Neither version of me."
Weir in The Martian
"I'm pretty much f*cked."
A Catch-Them-Off-Guard Event
The Power of the Unusual
Don't tell us you've never gotten a book based on how unusual its first scene was, even though you didn't know the author or the series. Yeah, we can't say we haven't done the same, either. In other words, don't underestimate the power of unusual/weird when it comes to attracting new readers to your work.
Whenever possible, defy expectations from the start so that the new arrivals realize one thing: your book won't be more of the same old same old. Sure, comfort reads have their own place in our reader hearts. However, it doesn't mean readers don't want to be surprised with something new or different. So, the event you choose as your story's opening cannot be just any situation. Even if yours is a classic plot, make sure the twist you're flavoring it with is easily discernible.
What else will that unexpected element do for you? Help readers see your book comes with a few surprises. And if they realize they aren't dealing with a predictable plot, they're more likely to pay attention to what you've got going on in each scene.
How to Wield it
Catch your readers' attention with
- Unusual language and turns of phrases
- Pairing words that normally aren't seen together
- Making an odd comment but at the right time
- Exploring a wry world view
In short, do what only wordsmiths can do to help readers see yours isn't a clichéd or tropey story. Instead, it speaks with its own perspective and voice.
Since predictability can be boring, we found a fun example for you. Susan Elizabeth Phillip's novel, Natural Born Charmer, opens on a man and a woman. But, wait, wait, that's not the unusual part. The woman is dressed in a beaver suit, and the man stops by the roadside to offer her his assistance. She deepens the intrigue by asking him if he has a gun. When he replies he isn't carrying, she counters with, "Then I got no use for you."
Quirkiness? Check. Unexpectedness? Check! Curiosity? Raised. Most readers will want to know more about the unusual protagonist. At least, this won't be a boring romance, they'll think to themselves.
A Yowza-I-Felt-That Description
It won't be enough for a story to demonstrate an out-of-whack event if you don't describe the situation well. Good dramatic openings can help you introduce your book's plot and protagonist. We'll cover the latter below, so let's look at the former.
If you can make the book's first line about the overall plot, so much the better. Doing so will set up the story and the readers' expectations. So even though they will have taken their first step, they will know what your book's going to be about.
For instance, Julia Spencer-Fleming's In the Bleak Midwinter is about an abandoned child. So, first, Fleming ensures she snares reader attention with an intriguing first line:
It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.
This raises two main questions:
- Who would do such a thing?
- Why would they abandon a baby?
It also helps the reader climb and settle into her protag's head.
Then she provides deliberate details that help the reader believe they will find the answers to those reader questions.
Finally, Fleming establishes the setting firmly in the reader's mind by giving visceral and easy-to-decipher details:
The place smelled of disinfectant and bodies, with a whiff of cow manure left over by the last farmer who had come in straight from the barn.
After reading the last part, you, aka the reader, will know straightaway that the baby abandonment is taking place somewhere rural. But, of course, you'll also want to keep reading, which means Fleming's job's done.
A Gets-To-You Protagonist
So, your reader has met the plot and the place your story is set in. Now, for the other essential introduction, i.e., to your protagonist. They'll need to be memorable to make their mark on the said reader's imagination.
Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye
If you've read and enjoyed Salinger's classic, then you probably remember the main character, Caulfield's clear and strong voice. However, what you'll remember even more easily is their disaffected teen personality.
Do you remember that jolt of familiarity and closeness on reading Bronte's, "Reader, I married him," line? That's the effect of Caulfield's snappy dialogue with cuss words, slang, and adjectives on readers.
This is how that novel opens:
'If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.'
When the teen directly addresses the readers, they find it easier to relate with him. And if they start connecting, they'll be more likely to keep reading.
Nabokov in Lolita
We may have made a mistake. All these references to a protagonist might make you think we don't have any favorite anti-heroes. But that's not true! So, we're making up for it by mentioning the ultimate anti-hero, the depraved and overly-friendly Humbert.
Humbert uses the following opening lines to do three things:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
- Immortalizes himself—and the author—in our collective memories
- Adopts a distinctive voice from the very first line, fully displaying the kind of person he is and his psychology
- Gives us a squicky yet visceral sense of his obsession over a pre-pubescent girl by going into raptures at even saying her name
- Nabokov's opening is strong because personality and character psychology is present in the first line.
In other words, the two maestros have created characters who might forever live in our heads rent-free!
A Runs-Down-Your-Spine Hint
Put on any horror flick. Or, pick up a scary book. Then, start watching—or perusing. But can you feel that niggling sensation that screams something isn't right? That sense of foreboding?
How about when the significance of a teeny detail you encountered initially dawns on you? Think of these hints as breadcrumbs an author sprinkles in the opening scene of their novel. That's another important element you'll need to include in yours. The breadcrumbs are foreshadowing, and they're highly useful for building anticipation.
Think about your most favorite opening scenes. Why did you like them? The author surely didn't unravel the plot right at the beginning. So, that can't be it. But these scenes do introduce what the plot's going to be like. Therefore, they can be used to grab reader attention.
Here's how to do that:
Moffat in The Beast Below (Doctor Who)
If you've followed this evergreen series, you may already know how much they like foreshadowing. You can guess at plots and monsters with the help of those breadcrumbs. For instance, in The Beast Below, the show opens on kids receiving their grades. Since one of them hasn't done so well, a creepy character tells them they'll be riding the elevator on their own. The boy gets in, and an ominous poem recitation comes next. Finally, the bottom of the elevator car opens and the kids falls through.
What's our takeaway? Sinister things are happening below the surface. Therefore, that's where our hero—and us--will be heading.
A Come-Take-My-Hand Invite
What We Have So Far
Just like the overall story, your opening scene follows its own arc. As of now, we've already thrown in:
- A killer first line
- An unusual sitch
- Intensely vivid description
- A memorable protagonist
What comes next?
An invitation to keep reading. How do you extend one?
We'll get there but first, the arc. It goes somewhat like this:
- The protag grounds us and clarifies what motivates them to act like they are behaving
- Our unusual situation goes up against that motivation, creating a conflict
- The resolution of said conflict with the scene coming to its conclusion
We've covered the first two steps, now let us focus on the third. Whether that result is good or bad for the protagonist depends on your plot. But one thing that it must be is satisfying. Enough to raise an eyebrow or three and keep us reading, so we can find out answers!
How NOT to Get There
A few pointers about your opening scene:
- It isn't an introductory tease to trick readers with promises of payoffs that may come or not later
- It cannot be a delay tactic, or your readers won't see the stakes right away and weigh them against their continued interest
- If you leave it incomplete, you indicate this is as high as the stakes. Instead, show them you're only getting started, and there's so much more in store
It's true you'll have to focus on multiple elements to create a killer opening scene. It’s also correct that it isn't easy. But two things should give you hope. First, this guide will hold your hand when you write. And secondly, you can go back and keep changing that scene until it flows seamlessly off the page!