Opening scenes introduce characters, plots, and settings, and where the story is going. Writers can take more time unpacking opening scenes than they can anywhere else in the story. The first and last scenes are almost always the ones authors can write with ease in a fully fleshed out way. They already have an “introduction” in their heads (i.e., the spark that inspired the story for them in the first place). Nancy Kress calls this “the honeymoon”: when the author is still in love with whatever gave him the story idea in the first place. With the spark driving him forward, he can frequently write one scene after the other, maybe skipping directly over the bridge scenes after the opening is established, pushing out the resolution scenes that he may also see clearly, until the initial idea is expended.
This guest post is by Karen Wiesner . Wiesner is an accomplished author with 118 titles published in the last 19 years, which have been nominated/won 134 awards, and has 39 more releases contracted, spanning many genres and formats. She is the author of the new Writer’s Digest Books title BRING YOUR FICTION TO LIFE.
Compared to the books that were written a hundred years ago, authors are given fewer and fewer words to “get to the point” these days. Whenever I think of a classic that would have been written almost beyond recognition for today’s readers, I think of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, published in 1898. If this book were written today, we would have seen whipsawing action at this invasion—mountains crumbling, buildings crashing down around screaming citizens running for their lives in the growing chaos of the attack, fire lighting the sky. … But times, and fiction, were different then. And, as unbelievable as it is now, when this story was adapted for a radio broadcast in 1938, it utterly terrified its listeners, who thought the events were real. Can you even imagine?
There’s no denying that the first page—specifically the initial 250 words—is your story’s make-or-break stage. In these 250 make-or-break words, your reader (whether an editor at a publishing house, literary agent, bookstore browser, the library try-it-before-you-buy-it patron, or the optimistic soul who buys his books by the crate and has a massive home library because he wants to devour life-altering written words that he can go back to over and over again in his lifetime) makes the decision whether to turn the page or to close the book and never open it again. The wisest author advice I’ve ever heard about writing a killer opening is to assume that the reader is in a terrible mood when he opens your book and, for that reason, you can’t let yourself believe you have until page two to win him over. Engage immediately. Doing anything else is at your peril.
There are several distinctive methods for starting a story. Many books have started with each of these types, sometimes effectively, sometimes not so much. While I have opinions on which ones are most effective, I won’t comment. I’ll simply leave it for you to evaluate whether you think each case works and/or whether another type of opener would have been stronger.
1. Stolen Prologue
In this opener, the climax scene is pulled out of the middle/end of the book and put at the front as a prologue. A stolen prologue opening can also be an intriguing “future of the present” summary (not word for word, and maybe not told in the nail-biting way it will be shown later) that reveals something that happens much later in the book, in the present. This scenario is intended to give the reader a taste of the biggest, most exciting sequence in the story. Movie producers use this ploy a lot to get a film started with a bang.
Just to be clear, a prologue per se isn’t what’s in question here. It’s the “stolen” aspect we’re focused on. A strategy like this can work very well, hooking the reader into your story to find out what it all means and/or how it came about. It can also easily become old and contrived. Some authors and readers even consider it cheating, especially if it’s not done in a compelling way, or if, once the reader actually gets to that point in the book, the drama of the prologue becomes repetitive instead of compelling.
One reason writers may use this kind of opening scene is because the actual beginning of the story is boring and/or slow (and perhaps they want the editor or agent receiving this submission, the one who will probably read only the first chapter, to read the exciting middle/end of the book instead of the actual snail beginning). If you’ve set up this kind of opener in your book, ask yourself about your purpose in using it and whether you’ve done it for a legitimate reason that makes the book stronger. If the sole reason is because the “real” beginning is shaky, you might want to rethink using this as a starting point and pep up the true opener so it does the work it needs to. If the stolen prologue actually works and serves the purpose, go with it.
2. Information Galore
In this type of introduction, the reader is given a ton of information that sets the premise of the story that follows. This can be written in a variety of ways—in the style of a prologue or synopsis, as a report of some kind, as a military dossier, in the style of a newspaper article, etc. Any of these can have a “true story” conveyance or be tailored to the fictional story about to be told.
Michael Crichton is one author who often started his books with these types of introductions, and he made this method work in whatever way he happened to present the information. For example, in Jurassic Park, he opens with a highly scientific and logical introduction detailing the field of biotechnology and genetic engineering in the late twentieth century and how a fictional company, InGen, instigated some sort of “incident” that led the company to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to protect its interests. This incident is the basis of the book. Crichton’s introduction effectively lays the groundwork for instilling a sense of real life into readers before the story truly begins with the fictional incident unfolding from that point on.
There can be very good reasons for using this kind of opener. If the information is actually based on true-life events, but may not fit into the story per se, that doesn’t mean it’s not important to convey anyway. If it’s not based on actual events, then maybe the underlying structure of the information presents a scientific, historical, or some other basis that lends authenticity to the story to follow; hence, the necessity of using this “info galore” delivery system to lay down the premise. This is another situation where asking yourself, “If I take this out altogether, does it damage the credibility of my story?” may be the deciding factor about whether it should be presented this way or cut.
3. Backstory-Dramatized Flashback, Dream, or Flash-Forward
This type of story opening injects a prologue or first chapter with a flashback that takes a pivotal event or memory from a character’s past and establishes where the story problem originated, slamming us into the heart of the drama. Another prospect is including a flash-forward—an event that happens in the future of the story about to be told. This event is inserted as a prologue. By using this method, you end up with a highly dramatized “real-time” (written as if it’s happening in the present, though the reader will find out following the prologue that the scene was actually something pulled from later in the book). A scenario like either of these options potentially supercharges the story, placing the reader into the midst of something emotionally powerful or that has the highest impact or action-packed situation of the book.
In his article “Where to Begin? When, Where and How to Write a Prologue,” Lital Talmor talks about the defining moment in the protagonist’s past, which must be told to the reader in order for him to understand the character. Talmor goes on to say, “Think how cold and alien Batman would be if we hadn’t first seen young Bruce standing bewildered over the bodies of his parents.” Giving the reader insight into a character’s motivating internal conflicts, stemming from an external conflict, with a flashback, dream, or flash-forward can harness instant intrigue.
4. Change She Is A-Comin’
This type of opening establishes the main character’s world as it is. The beginning is a normal, ordinary, average-day viewpoint just before “the inciting incident” descends and tears everything apart. Depending on the genre of your story and whether the opening is done right, this method can be intriguing. If your character loves her life as is, this is probably the world she wants to get back to before she was so rudely interrupted by the external conflict. This can really resonate at the end of the book, because the reader will remember the world before so vividly.
This kind of opener can also be slow, indulgent, leisurely … and sometimes incredibly boring, if there’s not enough interest to grip the reader’s imagination. As you’re writing your “change is coming” opening, if you feel you’re struggling to get into the story, your readers probably will, too.
5. Here’s Johnny
I can’t remember where I heard this quote, but a writer said, “Don’t waste time—begin the story at the last possible moment.” While this always makes me laugh, because the two images presented are contradictory, that’s what this method is all about. Get to the point with your opening, yes, but start where something crazy and exciting is happening. Whatever conflict or inciting incident catapults your story should be present from the first sentence and, from there, bust up everything the main character knows and loves; nothing will ever be the same.
By jumping into the action of the current story at the precise moment and time of the inciting incident, the writer doesn’t have a lot of time to establish the facts of character, plot, and setting. This method requires a great deal of master-storytelling acrobatics to get everything that needs to be included in the opener precisely when and where the story (and the reader) needs them to be.
While not every story is so action packed that a T-Rex razes a swatch of destruction in the main character’s path as it sweeps through the area, the intensity of this kind of conflict-laden opener is ideal for every story, regardless of genre. In context of your story’s tone, you have to work hard to suck the reader in with a skillfully developed punch of action that gives the who-what-where-when-why succinctly, effectively, and instantly so the pages fly by and the real world goes all but unnoticed by the reader.
Bring Your Fiction to Life teaches you how to build a solid narrative structure and layer in lush, textured scenes to create a story that rings true. In this great resource, you'll learn how to:
— Master the three-dimensional aspects of characters, plots, and settings using detailed sketches that define the past, present, and future aspects of each element.
— Develop complex opening, resolution, and bridge scenes that expertly lead readers through your fictional world.
— Construct and analyze an outline for your manuscript.
— Brainstorm, research, and draft efficiently and effectively, and juggle multiple projects with ease.
— And more!
If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at firstname.lastname@example.org.