If you’re like many writers, you probably wrestle with your first chapter and first scene for the entirety that you’re writing the rest of the book. They can be tough to nail!
Today we’re going to talk about:
What makes a great first scene?
Good opening scenes only have one thing to accomplish: make the reader want to finish the book.
Within that, there are different things we can do to make our opening scenes more enticing, but there aren’t really hard rules in writing. There are things that in general work better or worse, but if you have a certain concept you’re set on, there’s no reason not to pursue that! Even things you’ll hear people tell you not to do (like opening a book with your character waking up) can be done in an intentional and creative way. If you’re pursuing a method that is cliche or unconventional, just go into it aware and execute it well.
That said, here are some general tips you might apply to writing a compelling opener for your story.
How to write a great opening scene
- Start late to grab attention. A good rule of thumb is to start in the action of your story. You can catch up on important worldbuilding details later. If you can pull your reader into your story on the first page, that’s a very powerful opener.
Leave your readers wanting to learn more rather than bogging them down with a ton of exposition. It’s difficult to get readers to care with mundane details about your world and characters before they’ve become attached to those characters. Start the story with the story.
- Set the tone. Throughout your story, you will ideally have a consistent tone. That tone could be serious, melancholy, comedic, ironic, or whatever you’d like. But the tone you choose should drag through the whole book, which means it should also be there in your first scene. Make sure your opener establishes the tone you intend to maintain throughout the story.
- Choose a scene that establishes your setting. Especially in fantasy or scifi, you want to ground the reader in the universe your story takes place in as soon as possible. Of course, this doesn’t mean cranking in a ton of exposition about the way everything works, but a strong opening scene should give us a strong sense of setting. You don’t have to explain anything to the reader, but you should show them as much as you reasonably can to give them a solid foundation moving forward.
I’ve read fantasy manuscripts where I didn’t even realize the genre until a few chapters in—that’s not what you want.
Establishing setting can also establish the rules of your world, like the magic system and any unrealistic elements. Reading a book under the assumption that it’s a contemporary piece, then realizing one of the characters is a wizard, makes the reading experience a little more rattling than it needs to be.
- Introduce your character(s). In your first scene, you typically want to introduce at least your main character. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, just like all the rest—for example, you might have a prologue from a character we never see again, or some other stylistic scene that isn’t actually from our main character’s point of view.
But most of the time, you want to see your character in the first scene—we also want to understand a few things about them.
It’s great to establish something empathetic about your character as soon as you can to hook the reader into wanting to learn more about them and see what happens to them.
We also might want to see a few basic things, like their occupation, socioeconomic situation, basic demographics, what they want, what they do, their family life, etc. You don’t have to include all of these things, but choosing an opening scene that shows a lot about your main character is a strong choice.
- Conflict. Conflict of some kind should be introduced early in your story—it might not be the first scene, but it should usually be the first chapter. Even the potential of the conflict or related tension could work. You want something of interest to happen to make your readers want to see what will happen next.
I’ve seen a lot of writers try to utilize “prologues” in this way, where they just take a more interesting part of the book and slap it in the front as a “flashforward” to hook the readers that way, but that’s typically a lazy and ineffective strategy.
- That said, avoid having too much happening at once. Pick a sustainable moment! Choose a scene that doesn’t need a ton of exposition to understand, but can go on for several pages. You want a scene that’s chunky with something interesting happening, good character-defining moments, and that can make the reader have questions.
- Avoid too much exposition. Like I’ve mentioned a few times, you don’t want to bog your first page, scene, or chapter with exposition. Avoid it at all costs. My rule of thumb for exposition is to push back anything you can’t reveal naturally or in an interesting way until it’s absolutely relevant for the audience to know. Give them a chance to catch up and put things together on their own. That’s a big part of what makes reading fun!
Your first scene should be a sizable length with interesting things about your character, it should ground your reader in the universe and establish the rules of that universe, and it should give the reader questions they want answered.
Examples of good opening scenes
Let’s look at the opening scenes from three books: I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and This Is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar.
I’ll include the first few lines of the scene, then go over what I think the scene accomplishes. All of these books are great, including their opening scenes, and I recommend checking them out!
I Am The Messenger opens with a comedic scene of the character and his friends in the middle of a bank robbery.
“The gunman is useless.
I know it.
He knows it.
The whole bank knows it.
Even my best mate, Marvin, knows it, and he’s more useless than the gunman.
The worst part about the whole thing is that Marv’s car is standing outside in a fifteen-minute parking zone. We’re all facedown on the floor, and the car’s only got a few minutes left on it.”
Then we see the main character accidentally foil the robber’s plan, which triggers the rest of the book’s events.
This is a very strong scene, because it does most, if not all, of the things we mentioned above. We get:
- A strong introduction to our characters
- We set the tone (goofy, irreverent, snarky, lighthearted)
- The world is established
- And we jump right into the action without heavy exposition or too much going on at once
Northanger Abbey has a classic and iconic opening scene where Jane Austen absolutely dunks on her own main character. This is a good example of how exposition dumps can work if done well—but it is also worth noting that this is a writing style that was popular in early novel days. It’s more difficult to find modern readers with the patience to deal with this kind of novel opener, but Jane Austen takes a timeless, clever approach to it.
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her…She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features–so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind…her abilities were quite as extraordinary. She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid.”
- Tone? Established.
- The character is thoroughly introduced
- We learn the universe and rules (as well as era) based on the description of the character and her life
This Is How You Lose the Time War is a good example of a nontraditional modern book. It opens with a scene nearly identical to every other scene in the book. There is no “introductory period” for the reader—it rips you right into the story with the same tone, verbiage, and amount of explanation that you’ll see through the entire book (which is nearly no explanation).
“When Red wins, she stands alone.
Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.
That was fun, she thinks, but the thought sours in the framing. It was clean, at least. Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged—the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.
She holds a corpse that was once a man, her hands gloved in its guts, her fingers clutching its alloy spine. She lets go, and the exoskeleton clatters against rock. Crude technology. Ancient. Bronze to depleted uranium. He never had a chance. That is the point of Red.”
- Establishes tone
- Introduces us to the character, world, and rules of the world
- And drops us right into the action
These are three strong examples of opening scenes from strong books. A great exercise is to go back to your old favorite books and look at their opening scenes. What did they do well? What do you think was done poorly? How does the opening scene compare to the rest of the book? What can you take from those scenes and apply to your own?
An opening scene can make or break a book sale. Most readers will skim the first few pages before they buy it, so make sure you put the effort into yours to make it a shining representation for the rest of your book!