Don’t just love it when a book grabs you from the first paragraph and you just can’t put it down? You find yourself carrying the book around so that you can keep reading at any chance you get. Many writers aspire to writing a page-turner. Some writers have a natural talent for it, fortunately for the rest of us, it is a skill that can be learned. What your opening must achieve:
- After line 1, the reader should be curious enough to read line 2.
- By page 2, the reader should be entertained, strands of the story should be developed and conflict is building.
- By page 3, conflict has been established and an undertone of suspense should be developed.
- By page 4, the reader should be hooked. If he isn’t, game over.
First, let’s get the definition straight. A scene is simply a unit of dramatic action. That means people doing things—speaking, interacting, performing actions. There has to be some kind of conflict in the scene. The opening lets the reader know what’s going on, who is involved, what their relationships are and what the context is.
The difference between a regular scene and an opening scene.
The opening scene is a dramatization of the inciting incident. What happens here creates the initial problem and sets the entire stage for the big conflicts to develop. When the opening scene ends, another scene follows which explores the character’s emotional reaction and reflection on the events. Here, new action is formulated. A new scene begins as soon as that action is executed.
|Opening Scene||Non- Opening Scene|
|This is the only scene where the protagonist does NOT enter with a goal to resolve some type of problem. After all, the opening scene creates the initial problem.||Begins with the protagonist (or focus character of the scene) entering with a specific goal.|
|Focus on the inception of motive.||Focus on motive.|
|The protagonist is reactionary.||Characters act.|
The building blocks of the opening scene
Meet and greet your protagonist
Characters are the medium through which readers can experience a story. At least introduce your protagonist, preferably also your antagonist. Pick a telling detail rather than telling long descriptions. Show his single most important facet, briefly and through show, not tell. Also introduce the character goals.
Introduce the inciting incident
This is the event that upsets the situation and pushes it to its breaking point. It creates the initial surface problem and introduction to the story-worthy problem. The protagonist won’t fully realize the extent of his story-worthy problem in the opening scene, so the initial surface problem has to be so compelling that it forces him to take immediate action. The reader sees the protagonist’s personality by how they respond to the inciting incident. This incident eventually leads to the story-worthy problem.
Hint at upcoming struggles. Foreshadow the climax, setting up the for the final scene. If the finale ends in a blizzard, drop some snow-flakes in the opening.
Establish the setting
If the location is just as important as the characters in your scene then the place has be introduced to the reader as well. The best way to do this is to weave the description into the scene itself rather than providing a passive stand alone description. Setting can include the location, culture, society and anything that can be senses in any way. DO not start your scene with exposition.
Create the right mood
The scene must give an accurate impression of the tone and mood of the story.
How to make the opening scene a page-turner
Use a strong opener
The very first sentence of your story must hook your reader, make sure it’s a good one! (Example: He was so mean that wherever he was standing become the bad part of town.)
One successful way is to insert mystery into the opening scene. Plant questions in the mind of the reader to ensure he is motivated to continue reading in search of the answers. Bring the action in by putting the protagonist in a crisis. Make it compelling. Do not require the reader to know a lot of exposition or backstory in order to follow the current line of action without getting confused. Save the exposition for later.
Another way is by providing strange characters. Unusual characters are certainly not a must, it is not required in order to make your opening attention grabbing. However, it does help. Unusual people immediately draw our attention, they are interesting by being uncommon. Of course, the introduction should offer more than a weirdo. Introducing several (different kinds of) weirdos in one go, really peaks the interest. Nothing common could possibly result from such an odd mix of people! Readers will stay engaged to find out what happens to them. The reader often witnesses the protagonist fail something in act, which s/he will eventually succeed in as the story progresses. Take it one step further by making the reader care about the main characters.
Write an epic opening line. Nothing is as powerful as “show, don’t tell” no matter how skilled you are at exposition. The problem with exposition is that it reminds the reader that he told being told a story, rather than sucking him into it as if he is experiencing it all himself. Your goal is to evoke a strong emotional response. The reader will feel as if he lived through that opening scene together with the protagonist. Beautifully written exposition can lead to amazing literature, it is certainly a mastery of the art of language. However, emotion is essential for the page-turner story. An important note, is openings are not stand alone pieces. They have to lead into the rest of the story as effortlessly as possible. Remember, plot is a chain reaction of events. Everything is connected.
This is an excellent way to hook the reader: Example – Emma waits impatiently for a table at the restaurant (1) when she hears a scream from the kitchen (2). She rushes and hides behind the door to avoid being seen (3). Emma sees her sister in the choke-hold of large man (4). She barges inside to defend her sister (5) and tries to trick him into thinking she has a gun (6) by holding a roll of mints inside her jacket pocket. (7) Etc etc etc.
Some things to keep in mind
- Every word counts (no redundancy!).
- Keep the fancy words out of the writing if simple words does the work just fine.
- Use specific details when it is something worthy of attention to.
- Use strong verbs and concrete nouns for enriching scenes.
- The end of the sentence has more impact than the start of it.
- Use original language (beware of the cliché).
- Leave back story out of the opening scene as much as possible. In fact, keep the opening of a story as short as possible.
- End the scene with unresolved conflict is a classic page-turner technique.
- Opening chapters should end powerfully, leaving the character worse off than at the start.
- Make sure it is clear who’s point of view it is.
Cron, L. (2012) Wires for Story: the Writer’s Guide to using Brain Science to hook the Readers from the very First Sentence.
Edgerton, L. (2007) Hooked: Write fiction that grabs readers at page one & never lets them go.
Farland, D. (2013) Million Dollar Outlines.
Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques