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 the function of stories is to make us both feel and think.”


When you lay down the framework of your story, you are promising the reader that they will feel this way or think that way. A horror/thriller novel, for example, promises the reader that they will feel scared, maybe on edge for several weeks, unable to sleep because of the haunting paranoia that there is a vengeful ghost in the corner of the room, or a serial killer in a full-body latex suit watching intently from the vents. A blog post from the LYF, on the other hand, promises the reader that they will think from new perspectives, maybe become positively enlightened, able to sleep because of the comforting realization that the human experience is very much not something that is isolating, but something that is shared.


The beginning of your story should set up this promise. Pull the reader in with the promise that they will feel or think a certain way, and keep them pulled in with the prospect of a kept promise. The promise is there, yes, but convince the reader that they should follow through on it.


Take the first paragraph from the second chapter of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows:


“Kaz Brekker didn’t need a reason. Those were the words whispered on the streets of Ketterdam, in the taverns and coffeehouses, in the dark and bleeding alleyways of the pleasure district known as the Barrel. The boy they called Dirtyhands didn’t need a reason any more than he needed permission— to break a leg, sever an alliance, or change a man’s fortunes with the turn of a card.”


Many things can be assumed about Kaz’s character just from the first line. It’s a powerful first line, and makes quite an impression. And as with the first line of The Stranger, many questions arise about the nature of his disposition, as well as the circumstances surrounding it. The first would be this: what kind of person is he? You’ll find that reading on yields even more questions.


“Of course they were wrong, Inej considered as she crossed the bridge over the black waters of the Beurskanal to the deserted main square that fronted the Exchange. Every act of violence was deliberate, and every favor came with enough strings attached to stage a puppet show. Kaz always had his reasons. Inej could just never be sure they were good ones. Especially tonight.”


An underlying implication suggests that Kaz has no morals, so is he a hero or a villain? What makes, or made, him the way he is? What kind of story will this be? The promise therein is that this is not a story about good vs. bad, but rather it might be a story about the gray area of morality, the center stage of which Kaz takes the spotlight.


Bardugo promises the reader an adventure, above other things. You will feel excited, but you will also feel conflicted. There is much action to be had in Six of Crows, as it is a story centered around heists and dangerous stakes, but there are depths that will make you think twice about Kaz and ponder the reasoning behind his actions.


To Introduce: Characters and Conflict


Joost had two problems: the moon and his mustache.


Also from Six of Crows, this quote is the first line of the first chapter. Right away, both character and conflict are introduced: Joost, and his problem with the moon and his mustache. Your opening scene should always introduce these two components, for a story cannot exist without them. Let’s look at several opening lines from other YA novels, all of which do well to introduce both character and conflict:


I’m going to die tomorrow.

The Young Elites (Marie Lu)


Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan)


Both quotes introduce the character of the narrator, Adelina Amouteru and Percy Jackson respectively, and their corresponding conflicts. Adelina is going to die tomorrow. Well, that certainly is a pickle to be in. Percy is a half-blood, but doesn’t want to be. Boo-hoo.


Notice how these lines both introduce and engage. Why is Adelina going to die tomorrow? Is she sick? Is she going to be executed? If the latter, what did she do? What is a half-blood? What’s the other half? Why does Percy not want to be one? What are the certain miseries that accompany such a status?


Here’s another quote for good measure:


Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she was told she would kill her true love.

The Raven Boys (Maggie Stiefvater)


I’m sure you have many questions about that one. As established earlier, those questions you ask are important. They make you want to find the answers, and those answers can only be found by reading on.


Aristotle cites plot and character as the most important elements of story writing, and for good reason. A story cannot exist without a plot. A plot cannot exist without conflict. A conflict cannot exist without characters. With opening scenes, it’s important to introduce these components so the reader knows what they will be reading about. You only have a few pages to reel the reader in, so don’t be afraid to hit the ground running.


To Illustrate: Specificity and Credibility


Now that you have character and conflict, place them in a setting where the story will play out. Worldbuilding can be daunting, but it is necessary. Blue Sargent will one day kill her true love, but without reading further, the only thing you know about Blue is her name, her very pressing concern, and the fact that she is most likely standing in a white room with nothing else around her. Of course, you will read on to find that she is not, in fact, standing in a white room with nothing else around her, but that is the picture that was painted in your mind without reading further.


“Effective beginnings make use of specific details. These may be details of speech, setting, characters’ thoughts— anything relevant.”


As Kress says, specificity is key to your opening scene. You have already drawn out a picture, an outline of what you want to illustrate. All you need to do is color it in.


Below is the opening line of James Dashner’s The Maze Runner:


He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air.


This opening engages, introduces, and illustrates. Where is the narrator? You are drawn in to find out more. He, the character, has started a new life, a topic of sure interest and maybe even a source of conflict. Specificity is demonstrated here with the description of the narrator’s surroundings. Within this first line, a world has been built, and in that world, a character. “Details anchor your story in concrete reality,” says Kress. Storytelling builds a world not only for your characters, but for your readers as well.


Of course, you shouldn’t be too much or too little when writing with specificity. That is to say, you should take care so as to avoid the unfortunate fate of falling victim to purple prose or beige prose. To demonstrate, let’s continue looking at Dashner’s opening:


“Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him. He fell down at the sudden movement and shuffled backward on his hands and feet, drops of sweat beading on his forehead despite the cool air. His back struck a hard metal wall; he slid along it until he hit the corner of the room. Sinking to the floor, he pulled his legs up tight against his body, hoping his eyes would soon adjust to the darkness.”


The writing in this passage is neither too complex nor too simple. Though there is great focus on environment, worldbuilding is not sacrificed for the sake of visual imagery. Important details are present within just the first paragraph, and you’ll find that the reader already has a firm grasp on the details of not just setting, but also character and conflict. Dashner describes the area in which the narrator has been placed in, and, with body language, also portrays the narrator’s apparent fear and confusion— a classic example of the “show, don’t tell” method. This balance between showing and telling is what determines credibility.


If your writing is balanced, your reader will continue reading. If your writing is not balanced, even if your implicit promise is good, and your characters and conflict are good, your reader will not want to continue reading. This is credibility, whether or not the author can be trusted to tell their story, and to tell it well. “Credible prose,” writes Kress, “convinces the reader that the writer can handle the English language. He can be trusted. That sense of trust helps the reader suspend disbelief and enter into the world of the story.


If this guy can write prose this smooth[,] it’s worth seeing whether he can also tell a good story, or raise interesting questions, or make me think and feel something beyond my usual experiences. I’ll read on.


In a sense, your opening scene is just like marketing. You want people to be interested, and keep being interested. You want people to like what they are reading.


As you know, Kress breaks down parts of a story into more parts and even more parts, and so it should be no surprise to learn that credibility is actually broken down into more parts. But that’s another wall to slam into. Another wall to climb over. Whatever the saying is.


Epilogue


My very first story was written out in a college-ruled notebook that has sadly been lost in the dusty confines of my notebooks archive. Since completing the first draft in middle school, I’ve done several rewrites in attempts to improve the prose and the story itself. Something about the opening scene just breaks into my home and, instead of stealing valuables like any other sensible person committing an act of trespassing, moves all my furniture three inches to the left.


The first draft’s opening was very elementary, and god knows why I decided first-person would be a good idea. But I thank my lucky stars for Nancy Kress, as I was able to produce a decent opening scene under her guidance.


“She remembered drowning.


Twilight consumed her, a dark cocoon of disquiet. Around her, a sea of blue flames. An oil spill in the waves, welcoming her into an embrace, pulling her deeper into the chasm of its hunger.


She remembered looking up to the sky, seeing nothing but the endless blue of the deep. Eventually, that blue would fade into black, and she would wake, head pounding, skin flushed with the memory of inferno. The water burned in her lungs.”


- excerpt from a book I’ll most likely never finish


If I can write this after more than seven years of fistfighting writer’s block in an abandoned Denny’s parking lot, I’m pretty sure you can too. I believe in you! Write that opening scene!





About the Author



Charlize Colle Fernandez is an intern with the Love Yourself Foundation as a content editor. A student at UNLV, she is currently studying English with a concentration in creative writing. She hopes to become a book editor after graduation. Charlize has always enjoyed the arts, and she continues to find solace in stories, music, and photography.

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