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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