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On Beginnings: How to Write an Opening Scene

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Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.

Pique your interest? The above quote is the very first line from The Stranger, a French novella written by Albert Camus. As an opening scene, it serves several purposes for the interested reader. The first is to engage, to convince the reader that this book is worth reading. The second is to introduce, to present the key elements that give birth to and sustain the life of the story. The third is to illustrate, to give the reader a taste of the author’s style and prose.

1. To Engage

Upon reading the first line, the reader is immediately bombarded with questions of their own. The narrator’s mother has died. How? What sort of circumstances has led to her demise? Were they unfortunate? Why is the narrator unsure of the date of her demise? Do they not care enough to know? What sort of relationship did they have? What kind of person are they? Such curiosity cannot be satisfied without reading on.

2. To Introduce

Two components are established upon reading the opening scene: characters and conflict. Within the first line, the characters of the narrator and the mother are already introduced. The second line then makes the reader aware of the apparent conflict. The narrator is unsure of when their mother has died, demonstrating a rift in the supposed intimate connection between parent and child.

3. To Illustrate

Several conclusions can be drawn just by reading the first line. This story employs the use of the first-person perspective. It might even be reasonable to say that it employs the use of a journal, and that this first line is simply the beginning of one of many diary entries. As such, readers are able to know what kind of story they will be reading, as well as how they will be reading it.

As an aspiring novelist, one of the most difficult parts of writing a story is writing the first chapter. My very first story was brought to life in an English and Language Arts classroom, which, I must note, was exceptionally freezing. Do you ever see middle schoolers running around with sweaters and hoodies in 90-degree weather? That’s how cold the classrooms were. Anyway, I’m a junior in college now and that same story is still not finished. Why? Because I can’t write a decent first chapter!

I’m sure I’m not the only one. You’re probably reading this because you, too, cannot write a decent first chapter for the life of you. Sure, opening scenes can be difficult, but they don’t have to be. I only say this now because I recently took an Introduction to Creative Writing course and one of the assigned textbooks was the godsent Elements of Fiction Writing: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress. It breaks down the parts of a story, and breaks down the parts of those parts, and breaks down the parts of the parts of those parts, etc. The point is, it makes that first chapter easy. You’ll still have to write that opening scene on your own, which is another hurdle to trip over (or whatever the saying is), but at least you’ll know how to write it.

To Engage: Laying Down the Framework

Kress breaks down the opening scene into five parts: framework, characters, conflict, specificity, and credibility. By framework, she means the outline of the story, the premise of the plot. What is this story about? Kress describes this as the implicit promise:

“Every story makes a promise to the reader. Actually, two promises, one emotional and one intellectual, since