Writing

Planning Your Story’s Opening Passages

Readers have a lot to learn during an opening, and somehow they have to learn it while being entertained. Doing that takes a careful, piecemeal approach. However, all the information readers need is often interconnected, making it difficult to figure out where to start explaining everything. If you do it wrong, readers could become bored or disoriented.

With such an important and tricky undertaking, making a strategy for your opening passages can really help. While the same strategy won’t work for every story, I have one you can start with. Even if you need to tweak it, it can help you think critically about what information goes where.

The plan is separated into four steps, three of which are divided between primary information and secondary information. The primary information is the focus of the passage, because it hooks readers. The secondary information should be worked in more subtly, because while it’s not exciting, it prevents readers from having a bad experience in short order. If that sounds like a lot, don’t worry! It’ll become clearer as we go.

Start With an Urgent Problem

The primary information in the very beginning should almost always be a problem. Ideally, this is a problem your protagonist is dealing with that’s central to the story. When that’s difficult to depict, writers sometimes use a temporary problem to spice up the first pages.

Depending on your story, you might have more than one plot hook that could appear in the opening pages. Maybe you have:

  • An internal conflict. Example: The protagonist is lonely but has trouble connecting with others.
  • An external conflict. Example: A group of bounty hunters are trying to capture the protagonist.
  • A world conflict. Example: The bounty hunters have been hired by wealthy immortals who want to take over the nation.

Find the problem that has the highest stakes while still being personal for the protagonist. In these examples, it’s being chased by bounty hunters. Preferably, the problem will also last for a little while, so you don’t have to insert another hook while you’re still trying to warm up the story. If you want your hero to defeat a bounty hunter hand to hand in the first scene, it’s better if this bounty hunter is only the first and weakest of many. If the problem takes some explaining, try to boil it down to something that can be stated clearly in one sentence. You can fill in the details later.

With your problem in hand, the first thing you’ll do in your opening is name your protagonist* and give the very basics of the problem, along with whatever information the audience must have to understand it. If the issue is that the protagonist’s cyborg parts are breaking down, readers will need to know the protagonist is a cyborg. They don’t need to know that those cyborg parts were adapted from a gaming console, even if that’s why the parts are breaking down. That can wait.

Secondary Information

Describing or depicting this problem should cue your readers about where the protagonist is right now and what type of world the story is in. There’s a big difference whether these bounty hunters are using guns or crossbows and whether the protagonist is hiding from them in a radiation-proof basement or in the highest tower of a castle. It doesn’t have to be specific; at this point, readers just need to know what subgenre they’re reading and the general environment of the scene.

The point of view the story is written in should also be clear immediately. If you’re using a really common perspective like third limited, you won’t need to do much. But if it’s omniscient, second person, or epistolary format, that should be obvious from your first paragraph.

Establish Why the Problem Matters

Problems that readers don’t care about aren’t good hooks, and by default, readers won’t care about a problem. So immediately after the problem is introduced, you’ll want to:

  • Build some rapport with the main character, so readers sympathize with them and hopefully start caring about them.
  • Demonstrate why this problem is a big deal to the main character.

On the rapport side of this, readers can hear about the protagonist’s sympathetic problems, selfless virtues, and emotional motivations. Back to the bounty hunter example, readers might learn that the protagonist is caring for her ailing father. She would run and hide from the bounty hunters, but then her ailing father wouldn’t have anyone to care for him.

For why the problem is a big deal, readers should know what the larger consequences will be if the protagonist fails to solve the problem. Death is a bad outcome that doesn’t require further explanation, but you won’t always want death as the consequence – particularly in your opening. In this example, we know the protagonist’s father will be neglected, which could even be fatal for him. But what will happen to the protagonist if the bounty hunters get her? Maybe those captured by the bounty hunters return changed. That would definitely matter to readers who are fond of her.

Often, all of this information is conveyed by filling in more context for the character and problem you’ve just established. You can start thinking through this with questions like:

  • How did they end up in this mess?
  • Why is the problem difficult for them to solve?
  • What is it like to have this problem?
  • How do they feel about it: guilty, betrayed, or is this just another example of how unfair life is?

Ultimately, you want to include whatever context – and only the context – that will make the problem matter. Back to my cyborg example, now is probably a good time to establish how the protagonist has been using run-down parts, because hearing about it will build sympathy for them.

Secondary Information

While you’re making the problem matter, hint about the basics of your character. Is your protagonist an old black woman, an Asian man with one arm, or a young white girl with a pair of horns? You can wait to describe the protagonist’s hair color or freckle density, but anything readers might be surprised by should be hinted at here. That includes basic demographics and any unusual or fantastical features.

Demographics can often be implied by character names and statements about family, school, or work. Unusual physical features are generally described during character actions.

Show the Character’s Response

So far, the readers have learned the basics of the problem the protagonist is facing, and you’ve demonstrated why this problem is so important. Next, you’ll want to get the story moving. That means the protagonist should get ready to make a move of their own. You should convey:

  • What is the protagonist’s plan for solving, or at least coping with, this problem?
  • If it’s not obvious, what does the protagonist think this plan will accomplish?

The protagonist isn’t usually carrying out the plan at this stage; they’re just deciding on a course of action. If I opened my bounty hunter story with an action scene, this might actually happen after the hero defeats a bounty hunter in hand-to-hand combat and then realizes more goons will soon follow. Then she might decide to barricade the house or try to relocate with her father.

If she decides to make a phone call instead, readers will need to know how she intends to solve her problem that way. Is she going to make the immortals an offer? Or will she try to get help from the police? Trying to keep the protagonist’s intent a mystery this early will make it hard for readers to bond with the character, and this bonding is critical in opening chapters.

However, as long as readers know the gist of what the character is trying to accomplish, they don’t necessarily need to know all of the details of how it’s going to work. They don’t, for instance, need to know what offer the example protagonist will be making. The exception is if the character’s plan feels unrealistic. If you need to convey all the details before readers will buy it, you’d better provide those details.

Secondary Information

Now is a good time to add information that readers didn’t need to understand the immediate problem at hand, but that’s still relevant to the problem. In this case, who hired the bounty hunters and why are they after the main character? The protagonist can easily think through that when choosing a course of action.

The character thinking through this decision can also be a good time to reveal the other main conflicts of the story. Summing up their personal options or listing others who could help them might bring sore emotional spots to the surface – how they pushed everyone away, or that they’re too stubborn to run when they should.

Similarly, thinking over the threat can reveal world conflicts. Maybe the protagonist can’t call the police because the immortals have already bought them out. That certainly suggests something wrong with the world.

As the Character Acts, Do Important Setup

You’ve named the problem, made it important, and now your character is making their move. Narrate their actions until they start some important but boring task that takes them at least fifteen minutes. If they’ve decided to flee, maybe they’re packing up or driving away. If they’ve decided to fight, maybe they’re barricading the house. They might be studying ancient texts or waiting for others to arrive. This is often the first safe place to slow down a touch.

That means you can focus on conveying information that isn’t directly relevant to the opening problem but is still central to the work. Where before you were trying to communicate the general subgenre, now you’ll want to communicate the broad strokes of this specific world. If this is urban fantasy, is there a masquerade? If it takes place on an alien planet, is this an Earth colony or is Earth a distant memory? What’s the technology level of this place, and who’s in charge of it?

Start laying the foundation for what will happen later. Foreshadow reveals coming down the pipe and better establish the characteristics of the protagonist and antagonist. Give context that will help the next scene move faster.

For my example, information at this level might answer these questions:

  • What are the details of the protagonist’s plan to protect herself from the bounty hunters?
  • Just what and who are these immortals who hired them? Rich people with expensive tech? Vampires?
  • How did the immortals become so entrenched?
  • Is anyone opposing them? (Perhaps they will be allies later.)

Of course, you don’t want to fill in this kind of non-immediate context for too long. The longest I can see this working is for maybe a page, and even then you’ll want to break it up with character actions and other small events.

Then it’s time for another engaging conflict, though it doesn’t have to be as exciting as the opening scene. Maybe the protagonist argues with an important character instead of fighting hand to hand. You’ll still be filling in information as you can, but the biggest challenge is over.

Workshop: I Am Number Four

A teen in sunglasses walks away from an explosion, not looking back

To bring this pattern to life, let’s put together a plan for reworking the opening of I Am Number Four. I’ve chosen this book because the story has all the right ingredients for this format, but its current opening is sloppy. If you’d like to get a better sense of how it’s written now, you can read my critique of the prologue and first chapter.

I Am Number Four has a premise that requires some explaining. The main character, John, is one of nine alien kids that are the last of the Loric race, each protected by a single guardian of another alien race. The kids were taken to Earth when they were very small, and they now live separately in hiding.

The big bad is hunting the kids down and killing them. But there’s a catch: because of this magic charm* they have, he can only kill them in a specific numbered order. The book opens as the third kid, “Number Three,” dies. John is Number Four. When Three dies, John’s magic numbering charm glows really bright and painfully brands his flesh. This tells him that Number Three is dead, and John’s the next target.

Currently, the book opens with a prologue that shows the big bad killing Number Three. Then in chapter one, we get a big exposition dump about these kid aliens and their weird magic charm, followed by a summary of John’s life in hiding. Finally, we catch up with the current moment. John’s charm goes off while he’s out on a boat with a girl he likes. She’s surprised by the charm, he says goodbye, and then he swims to shore to meet back up with his guardian.

With a premise as complex as this, it’s not surprising that the writers of I Am Number Four resorted to a prologue and exposition dump. But that wasn’t necessary.

Starting With a Problem

Let’s find our opening problem. The problem with the highest stakes that personally affects John is that the big bad is coming to kill him. However, there’s no real conflict over this problem at the beginning of the story, since the big bad is still far away. If I were writing this I might invent one, but for this workshop, let’s stick to what’s in the book. That means focusing on a lower-stakes issue: John’s glowing charm is breaking his cover. However, because both problems appear simultaneously, we can also mention his life is in danger – essentially using it as a teaser. This way, the two less-than-perfect hooks will supplement each other.

This story is written in first person, and it’s told by a future John looking back. That’ll be easy enough, and looking backward will make inserting teasers simple. However, we also have to get across the genre, and the mixed theming of this world will make that more difficult. Getting across the contemporary setting is no problem, but aliens mean scifi and a charm means fantasy. If we don’t communicate both in our opening, it’ll feel misleading or jarring later.

To understand all this, the readers will need to know:

  • John is an alien in hiding.
  • He is currently on a boat surrounded by other teens.
  • He has a glowing charm that’s blowing his cover.
  • The charm is a warning that someone is coming to kill him.

We don’t need to know about this numbering system, or that he’s the last of his race, or who’s hunting him, or anything like that in the very beginning. In fact, that last bullet is optional. Working it in there will provide a more powerful opening hook, but if that becomes too hard, it would also make a great reveal for the end of the first chapter.

To show you what this might look like, I’ve written a rough opening that communicates all of this information.

Example

My impending murder was announced at the worst time. I’d finally managed to blend in with humans my age, and I was invited to join a group at the lake. We were out on a pontoon at sundown, drinking soda and splashing our feet in the water. A cute dark-haired girl named Tara sat next to me, and she leaned over to whisper in my ear. Then my calf lit up like a torch.

I stifled a yell as my leg was practically branded with a hot iron. I was so focused on keeping quiet through the pain, I didn’t notice Tara scramble back and call to the others.

That is, not until someone said, “What is that?”

I glanced around; the pain was fading, but everyone on the boat was staring at me. With an effort, I relaxed my face and tried for a casual smile. “Sorry, I forgot I was wearing my transparent body-wrap light.” It was a pathetic explanation, but I couldn’t exactly tell them it was a protective charm cast on me by my alien parents.

Why the Problem Matters

The next step is to communicate the consequences of John’s cover being blown – he’ll have to move again, leaving all his new friends behind. To care about this unwanted departure, readers also need to care about John and think that staying is important to him.

Currently, the book works to create sympathy for John by narrating how he had to pick up and move all the time. However, it’s done in the exposition dump about John’s life, and it has so few evocative details that it’s robbed of impact. The challenge for this workshop is to make it feel like John actually has something meaningful to lose. In the previous example, I hinted that this is John’s first real opportunity for friendship, so it’s time to build on that. It’s also important to keep the conflict with the other teens tame, or it won’t feel like they’re friends worth keeping.

Luckily, the secondary information of this step will be easy. We don’t have to clarify John’s distinctive features because he doesn’t have any. Okay, he’s technically an alien, but one that’s as blank as characters come. The only thing that might be worth clarifying is that he’s in high school, just so no one thinks he’s twelve or something.

Example

“Your what?” Jalen blinked. After helping me with my English homework and inviting me out here, Jalen was the closest thing to a friend I’d ever had. Now he was giving me the look that meant I’d done something rather alien.

“I think he said a transparent body wrap.” Tara smiled. “Can I get one in green?”

“Umm…” I had to think of something fast, or Henry would get wind of this, and he’d have me packed up and moving to another state within the hour. I’d never see my classmates again. “No, see, it’s my… sorry, could you all forget it? I wasn’t supposed to take it out with me, because… the patent is still pending.”

“Oh, your dad’s an inventor?” Jalen’s eyes lit up.

“Uh, yeah.” I looked away. High school friendships weren’t supposed to start with lies; they were supposed to start with complaining about tests, sharing snacks, and maybe if everything went well, sitting together at lunch time. That’s all I wanted.

Showing the Character’s Response

Next, it’s time for John to consider his options and make a decision that addresses the problems that have been raised. In the book, he says goodbye to Tara and then dives into the water, swimming for the shore. He goes home, finds Henry, and tells him the charm went off.

Let’s do the same thing, but first John will have an internal conflict about his decision. After successfully making excuses for the fire on his calf, he decides he has to leave his new friends behind anyway, as staying would put them all in danger. Besides having a nice emotional weight, this sacrifice should help increase his likability.

This is also a good time to offer more information on the problem that’s only been teased so far – the threat to John’s life.

Example

Tara opened a compartment and pulled out a game box. “Who wants to get beat at Dungeon Blunder?”

The others swarmed around her, taking the box apart. Someone shoved some colorful cards in my hand. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with them, but what did that matter? I was about to play an actual board game, and not something stuffy like Monopoly or Scrabble. I’d seen kids laughing through games between classes; now I got to join in.

Thankfully, Jalen explained the game before we got started. I played a few cards when I was supposed to, and I finally understood why it was funny. I even laughed, like I was one of them. That’s when Henry’s voice came to me: What are you doing playing games at a time like this?

I tried to push the voice away, but imaginary Henry was right. My charm had gone off again, and that could only mean one thing: someone was coming to kill me. I could risk my life for a game if I wanted, but my new friends hadn’t asked for that. They’d seen something dangerous, and the longer I was in the neighborhood, the more likely they’d be captured and questioned about it. Endangering them, even to be their friend, wasn’t what a friend would do.

I put the cards back in the box and stood. “Sorry, I gotta go.”

The group paused, brows raised.

“Already?” Jalen said.

“Yeah. Thanks for inviting me and helping me with school and everything. I won’t forget.” I stepped back toward the water and looked over at Tara. “It was nice to meet you.”

I jumped in before they could reply.

Making Room for Further Setup

John has made the decision to leave, as Henry would want him to. While he’s swimming for shore, the readers can be filled in about the big pieces of the book’s premise that are missing:

  • John and eight other children were the last remaining Lorics.
  • All of their parents are dead.
  • Henry is John’s guardian.
  • The children are being hunted by a species called the Mogadorians.
  • Because of the charm, they have to be hunted in order.
  • The charm going off means Number Three is dead.
  • John is Number four.

At this point, information is conveyed through standard exposition. So, I won’t write up an example of the whole thing, but I’ll show you what the transition might look like.

Example

I swarm toward the northwest shore, where I could grab my bike and pedal hard back to the home I had with Henry. He would no doubt be there staring at all his monitoring screens, ever the vigilant guardian. I wasn’t allowed to bring anyone to the house, because it would look weird – Earth kids didn’t have a guardian who interrogated visitors, they had parents who invited their friends home for a nice supper. My parents were gone. In fact, every parent of my race was gone.

Writing a good opening is about prioritizing. That means boiling everything down to what’s important, and putting off anything that isn’t as important until its time comes. By doing this, readers will better understand what they need to know, and the story will shine through much stronger.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Sam Victors

    That’s what I have done in my story, the beginning that is.

    I started out establishing my character (she’s the narrator) and her escapism, her family problems (they’re loving but temperamental and unhelpful), and her school life, where she also has problems there.

    I probably took a lesson from reading Coraline, where it talks about her new life at a new house and neighbors, before the adventure starts.

  2. Adam Reynolds

    How should this advice change for an epistolary novel? If you’re starting with in universe documents, what would initially be the best type to use?

    One of the advantages to this format is that you can use ideas like an essay written by a character(or in one example I read recently, a space Wikipedia entry) for exposition. But I’m thinking this probably doesn’t have enough character focus to get you drawn in and it would probably be better to start with something more like an interview.

    • Chris Winkle

      The ideal opening is actually the same for epistolary. It’s just epistolary sometimes makes it difficult to convey the information you need to.The easiest way to do this in epistolary is to start with something written by the main character so readers can get to know them. A journal entry works pretty well (like in the Martian), or a letter/email to someone the main character has a reason to describe personal feelings and problems to. This allows readers to get into the main character’s head.

      So yeah, for an opening it’s better to stay focused on the character, I would save the more creative documents for later.

      • Sam Victors

        What if an epistolary had more than one person writing a letter/email?

        Say like that long book, Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, it has many letters from several major (and minor) characters.

        • Chris Winkle

          Whenever you have a story with multiple characters who are important, you want to choose a lead protagonist to open with in the same way you would open normally. Then when you switch to a new character, you want to quickly show how what they are doing is connected to what the first character is doing. If the new character is also a protagonist, you should help readers bond with the new character as well. And so on. Bonding with a protagonist is how readers care about anything that’s happening, so regardless of what letters or documents you have, you want whatever you’re depicting to be relevant to a protagonist you’ve introduced.

  3. Candlewitch

    This is a really fantastic article so far, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. I had a question about introducing the character after reading this passage:

    “Is your protagonist an old black woman, an Asian man with one arm, or a young white girl with a pair of horns? …anything readers might be surprised by should be hinted at here.”

    My setting does not limit human traits to any one ethnic group, nor are humans from different regions identifiable by their appearance; I want this to be a story with ample representation. For the main character, I do not describe how their eyes are analogous to those found in East Asia until after the first several chapters.

    Is this something that might surprise a reader, or is it a small enough detail that the reader can coast through without a jarring change? Would it be wiser to leave this trait out altogether, so my viewpoint character can fit whatever demographic the reader wants to see — or would it be wiser to mention one or two traits to confirm this is not another white character?

    • Chris Winkle

      Yes, race is something you want to clarify at that point if possible. Unfortunately though, it’s really difficult to clarify that someone is Asian in a setting where Asia doesn’t exist. Focusing on the eyes is associated with a lot of negative stereotypes; Asian readers do not like it when an Asian character’s eyes are used to specify race. As far as I know, the only way to specify that a character is specifically Asian in an other-world setting is to create a culture that is a stand-in for an Asian culture, and we don’t recommend that for people outside the culture because it’s so easy to get wrong.

      What you can do is specify that your character has straight black hair and skin that is darker than what would be considered white. The character probably won’t be interpreted as Asian specifically, but she’ll at least be interpreted as a woman of color. Consider featuring an Asian character in another story in an Earth setting, where you can just say she’s Asian (though you’ll want to narrow that down to a much more specific culture).

      While having a character that can be interpreted in a number of ways is an option you may want to use sometimes, those characters are generally interpreted as having the most privileged characteristics. They don’t provide representation to marginalized readers or make your stories more diverse. So overall you have the right strategy when it comes to making your stories more diverse.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I just wanna add that he tumblr Writing with Colour has a ton of advice for how to write different races in a fantasy setting! Don’t remember right now how much they have on Asians, but they do have lots.

        • Chris Winkle

          Indeed, I frequently recommend them. But I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them respond to a question about this particular challenge, and they don’t have another solution. If I’m wrong, links are welcome!

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