The Keys to a Great Opening Scene

By Hartwig HKD on Flickr

The beginning of your story can do many things, but one is more important than any other: capturing the reader’s interest. If they don’t keep reading, any other purpose – setting the tone, hinting at central themes, or whatever else – becomes pointless. As a reader who frequently doesn’t get past the first few pages, I’m going to share what inspires me to keep going.

Immediate Action

Readers expect the beginning to be slow. Some will even wait through the first half for action and conflict to arrive.

But surprising them with action and conflict in your opening scene is the single most effective way to keep them reading. They aren’t going to put the story down while they are being entertained. They won’t even notice how many pages they’ve flipped through.

Sometimes it’s difficult to start the conflict of your story without setting the stage. The Lord of the Rings is more powerful because the audience witnesses the peace and innocence of the Shire, before being introduced to the dangers of the world. But in that case, the story can still open with a smaller conflict that introduces the themes of the larger one that follows.

What I don’t recommend is the common practice of highlighting the villain in the opening instead of the protagonist, through the eyes of a redshirt. This is done to allow action and set tension, while keeping the main character in a state of blissful ignorance about the big problem at hand. It does that effectively, but it keeps writers from using the next tool in this kit.

Meeting the Protagonist

Many readers, including myself, are interested in stories because they want to see what happens to the protagonist. That requires the reader to feel a strong attachment to the central character.

This is not an uphill battle for writers. Readers want to be attached to the protagonist. They try their best. But it’s hard for them to do that if they don’t know who it is.

The opening scene is a place of incredible uncertainty for readers. They’re just trying to figure out what’s going on. Assuming the point of view character for that scene is the protagonist, they hang their emotions on that person.

So you can probably understand why it’s frustrating for many people when that character is actually a redshirt, dying in a page just to demonstrate how villainous the villain is.

Think of it this way: you get +2 to audience attachment if you open the story from the viewpoint of your protagonist. Don’t give that up easily.

If you have multiple viewpoint characters, choose which one is the most important for readers to care about, and open with her. Also make sure she’s mentioned in your book’s marketing description or back cover. It’s about setting expectations.

Seeing the Protagonist in a Pinch

So the readers are immersed in action, and they know who they’re supposed to be cheering for. What makes both of those even better? Putting your protagonist on the losing side of the conflict. That’s because:

  • It makes the conflict even more tense for the viewpoint character.
  • It maintains the tension even after the conflict is over. Now the protagonist has to deal with the loss, whether it’s being imprisoned in a dungeon or missing a magical artifact that was going to save the kingdom.
  • It makes the protagonist an underdog. That’s +5 to audience attachment right there.

Putting your protagonist in a pinch can come in a variety of different flavors; it doesn’t have to mean being beat up in a physical fight. Any form of spinach will do. He can be ridiculed, denied an important promotion, or exiled from his home.

Being Introduced to a Mystery

The cherry that tops off your opening scene is curiosity. Introducing a unanswered question will always make a beginning stronger.

For many speculative fiction writers, this is where all that worldbuilding pays off. Grab that strange and unique aspect of your world that is integral to your story. Show it to the audience right away.

That doesn’t mean you should open with a bunch of exposition about your world; less is more in this case. It’s what’s left unsaid that invokes the imagination. You have the rest of the story to give your readers an explanation.

If you feel your world is run-of-the-mill, or you can’t reveal its mysteries quite yet, a good ol’ “whodunnit” opening will also invoke curiosity. Who sent the protagonist that weird letter? How did the furniture turn upside down while she was in the bathroom? And where are those gnomes going with her underpants?

Putting It All Together

I’ll demonstrate these four tips by going over my favorite opening, from Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris. He accomplishes everything I’ve just talked about in his first sentence:

Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.

We’ve met the protagonist, Prince Raoden. We know that something has happened, and it will show its teeth at any moment. And we know it’s not going to go well for Raoden. But we don’t know what it is yet, it’s a mystery.

Before that mystery is even answered, Sanderson gives us a new one. Raoden gets out of bed and looks at the view from his window:

The abandoned city seemed darker than usual. Raoden stared at it for a moment, then glanced away. The huge Elantrian walls were impossible to ignore, but people of Kae tried very hard to do just that. It was painful to remember the city’s beauty, to wonder how ten years ago the blessing of the Shaod become a curse instead…

There’s his world, holding its weight by invoking curiosity.

After Prince Raoden’s maid backs away in terror, he goes to the mirror to find out what’s wrong:

His blue eyes were the same, though they were wide with terror. His hair, however, had changed from sandy brown to limp gray. The skin was the worst. The mirrored face was covered with sickly black patches, like dark bruises. The splotches could mean only one thing.

The Shaod had come upon him.

Raoden has been transformed by a terrible curse of unknown origin. In the next scene, we learn more of its consequences: the prince is declared dead by his father, and thrown into the mysterious city of Elantris. If you want to know what happens next, you’ll need to read the book. I recommend it.

Can You Create a Good Opening Without Some of These?

Many authors have. In the beginning of Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman spends the first two paragraphs on world-related exposition. He doesn’t even mention a protagonist until that second paragraph comes to a close, but it’s intriguing enough to work. In Redshirts, John Scalzi opens from the point of view of, appropriately, a redshirt. But you’re much more likely to gain than to lose by adding these components to your beginning.

Have I missed something you like to see in an opening scene? Tell me in the comments.

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  1. Emmalina Bradbury

    Very interesting tips, on creating an interest at the beginning and a desire to read more and find the essence of the story, and connect with the characters.
    If we as readers don’t do this early in the book then we lose interest, as a writer is essential to have a reminder that we must engage the reader early on !

  2. Skylark

    I’ve been fighting with myself over having a prologue from a different POV character than my protagonist, but I’ll probably end up keeping it because a) the way this (nonhuman) character sees the world gives important details that foreshadow the climax, and b) the character is the MC’s mom, and where she’s been for the past several years is part of the mystery the MCs uncover. I may yet find a way to make it work better without the prologue come the next drFt, but for now it stays.

    My personal favorite opening line is from Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve: “It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”

  3. Quinte

    Have you read ‘the left hand of god’? It has my favourite opening and the best word craft I’ve read.

  4. drakendottir

    Thank you very much for this! Now I’ll have to reconsider my first chapter: I wrote it from one of the MCs perspective, but the person in peril is actually her brother (another MC) and neither of them is the MAIN MC, so to speak. Or the one I want the readers to care for the most.
    Guess I’ll either find a pickle for my “favourite/most central” MC to be in in the beginning (even though her troubles were meant to start a little bit later, I was planning on giving her at least a short exposition breather, introducing her culture instead of forcing a conflict that won’t last longer than a scene because the actual conflict can only start after the original beginning… which, the longer I think about it, is guilty of being kind of prologue-ish) or I’ll start with the brother whose life is about to be seriously messed up instead of with his sister who won’t stand for it (spoiler: she’ll only halfway succeed, safe his life and lose him for many years inspite of her efforts).

    But maybe I’ll keep everthing as it is right now. It feels like that first chapter’s very central to the political plot of the book and while the sister is not my main MC, her arc will take a preeeeetty dark turn later on, making this scene possibly necessary foreshadowing for her descent…

    In any case, my favourite first line of all times is probably by Antonia Michaelis in her novel Drachen der Finsternis (Dragons of Darkness): “Der Tag an dem Arne verschwand war golden.” Or, roughly translated from German into English: “The day on which Arne vanished was golden.” Don’t let the title fool you, it’s not a sappy children’s fantasy book, but rather a very intense, sad and at the same time insanely lyrically-written take on civil war in Nepal, introducing the themes of opressing a people, of misguided / fruitless rebellion, terrorism etc. from basically all perspectives to a young audience. It still amazes me how she uses language to invoke atmosphere and the lyrics of Niya’s song still give me goosebumps all over.

    A close second is Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Gosh, I could quote every other sentence in that book, if not every one, and all of them are pure magic.
    “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.” Sure, it is not as gripping, it does not invoke immediate conflict. It invokes wonder instead, and I’ve never been able to lay that book down easily once I’d opened it.

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