Opening scenes are often written first and edited so many times, that after a while it’s easy to overlook the fact that they may no longer be the best choice, and that there may be more effective ways to begin your story.
How well does your opening scene…
- Grab the reader’s attention?
- Introduce the main character?
- Set the tone for the story?
Would any of the following ideas serve you better?
- A DIALOGUE – The spoken voice has a directness that not only grabs the reader, but is key to developing character. Dialogue with the reader is another great way to open a story, in which case you will probably want to use the second person (i.e. “you”), and consider whether or not you need quotation marks.
- A CHASE – A hunt or chase scene yields lots of opportunity for action, intrigue and mystery. Who’s after what? Will they get it? What will happen if they do? What will happen if they don’t?
- A MONOLOGUE – Self-talk, a telephone conversation or a speech can be just as revealing as a dialogue. In fact, it can sometimes be difficult to categorise them. Does talking to the reader count as dialogue or monologue? Is either limited by whether the voice is internal or external?
- A DEPARTURE – A man goes on a journey or…
- AN ARRIVAL – a stranger comes to town.
- A SECRET ACT AND/OR PLACE – Someone who’s doing something they shouldn’t can tell us a lot about the character, but also about the rules of the world they inhabit. Not to mention the added element of tension and mystery.
- A WORLD OVERVIEW – Starting with an overview and then zooming in on a particular character, place, or event can help place the story in context. Is the character important in the grand scheme of things? How does their puzzle piece fit into the big picture? Where in the world are they?
- A FLASHFORWARD – This is a useful technique if you’re writing a story in which the end is known (for example, a retelling), or in which the end creates a mystery that propels the plot – how on earth does the character wind up there? Often the scene will be repeated later in the story, when the chronology catches up with it.
- A FLASHBACK – Similar to a flashforward, but the focus is on developing backstory. Also useful if your character needs to start the story at an uninteresting point.
- A FRAME NARRATIVE – This method creates a fiction within a fiction. It’s useful when you want to explain the significance of your story for your story world. It can also be a good excuse to add in ephemera such as…
- A LETTER – The heyday of letter-writing and the epistolary novel may be past, but there’s no reason you can’t still begin with a letter (or an email or text message). Missives are perfect for quickly developing a character’s voice, and they can also have a physical presence in your story.
- A DIARY ENTRY/LOG – A diary entry or log is another piece of ephemera that’s often included in stories, and that can make a great opener. Dear Diary…
- A QUOTATION – Epigraphs are a different matter, but you can start your story out with a quotation from within your story universe – preferably one that explains something crucial to the plot.
- A DESCRIPTION OF A PLACE – This may be a classic, but why reinvent the wheel? If your setting is important for the story, and it’s strange or interesting, use it to set the scene.
- A DESCRIPTION OF A PERSON – If unusual and interesting characters are an important part of your story, then why not begin by introducing one (or more) of them? It’s common for 19th-century novels in particular to begin with the physical appearance of a character, or with an overview of their personality. Readers are accustomed to this sort of opening, so it’s a comfortable and familiar choice.
- A DESCRIPTION OF AN OBJECT – This is in effect the inverse of the “world overview”. Instead of a wide shot, zoom in one small detail – perhaps even a part of an object – something that’s important to the narrative perspective, and that can focus the reader and jolt them out of their usual way of looking at the world.
- A SURPRISE DISCOVERY – A surprising or dangerous discovery is a great way to add some drama from the very beginning, even if the discovery isn’t part of the main narrative. This technique is often used in mysteries and thrillers to unveil a murder or introduce an antagonist or macguffin.
- A PREPARATION – Whether the preparation is for a cocktail party or a battle, there’s an inherent tension in preparation – will everything go right? Have we anticipated everything? In an opening scene, you can use this tension to get the reader interested, and to reveal how the character responds to pressure.
- A RITUAL – Rituals mark important moments of transition or transformation. From a writer’s perspective, they also have the advantage of bringing together various people and of having “in-built” drama.
- A HERALD BEARING (WELCOME OR UNWELCOME?) NEWS – This doesn’t necessarily have to be a liveried messenger. Think of the last shocking news bulletin you watched – how could something similar affect your characters and grab your reader’s attention?
- AN ORDINARY ROUTINE – An ordinary routine can be a great way to show how ordinary a character is, and an extraordinary routine can show how extraordinary a character is. Routines are good character short-hand because they’re activities that we’re motivated enough to perform on a regular basis, until they become part of our identity. “We are what we repeatedly do.”
- AN ABERRATION – Similar to a surprise discovery, but depending on your story this could be anything from a break in the character’s morning routine to the apocalypse. Anything that you can highlight as a change from the ordinary is a potential hook to draw the reader in.
- A SONG – A song is an unusual way to begin a story, which is why it could be effective. But you may need some imagination and practice to figure out how you will convey the song, the singer, the voice, and the listener.
- A SPEECH – Speeches are effective because they address an audience directly, but unlike a dialogue or monologue, they’re carefully composed to deliver a specific message. Putting the reader in the place of the audience can be a good way to get their attention.
- A BIRTH – This may seem like an obvious place to start a story about a central character, but unless the birth is unusual or important, it may feel too early. However, a birth that isn’t the main character’s may be just the thing.
- A DEATH – Like births, deaths have the potential to push a story along with their momentum. They’re emotionally charged, and can be a dramatic turning point for a character, especially if they’re the one dying…
- A MEAL – This is a useful way to gather a group of (potentially unrelated) people around a common purpose. Useful, because as a writer, it gives you plenty of scope for description (of food, setting, and characters) and exposition in the form of conversation.
- A LECTURE – Similar to a speech, but the purpose of a lecture is to impart knowledge rather than to motivate the audience to change. This opening does have the danger of becoming boring and prone to “info dump”, but it can be a good choice for a story in which intellect is an important theme.
- A SCHEDULE/ITINERARY – I can’t think of any examples of novels that begin with a schedule, but it strikes me as a great way to introduce a story that relies heavily on timing. What is the schedule’s timespan? Who or what created it? Are there consequences to not keeping to it?
- AN AUTHORIAL STATEMENT/INTERJECTION – This may seem similar to a frame narrative, but many stories (especially classics) employ an authorial voice without developing the author into a story character. This method can be useful for aligning the reader with a particular character or viewpoint, but if you use it, you will almost certainly want to continue your story in the third person omniscient point of view.
Don’t forget to share, and find more ideas in these posts…