Karina M. Sokulski
Brainstorming Opening Scenes
Opening scenes have always been tough for me. So many notes to hit and so little time. Worse, opening scenes lead to first chapters that are equally challenging. Your first chapter should hook the reader into committing further otherwise you risk your story being returned to the bookshelf. Before that, though, you want to aim for an opening scene that intrigues your readers to stick around for the hook.
There’s a lot of pressure on writing an opening scene that emotionally connects the reader to your story. The more popular phrase I’ve heard is “the first two hundred or so words are your make-it-or-break it moment. Either you have something that will make the reader turn the page or close the book.” This phrase used to terrify me into writing sub-par opening scenes that proved anything but confidence boosters. Following help from my critique group and some GREAT advice from online courses regarding how to analyze my favorite authors, this phrase became a lot LESS terrifying.
What it all came down to with opening scenes was to get to the point. Obvious right? Maybe in so few words but years worth of scratching my head at the start of high school essays with an ADHD-riddled brain suggests otherwise. Besides openings are hard if you don’t know where to start. What marks the perfect place to airdrop your reader into your world without confusing or overwhelming them?
It’s impossible for me to think about an opening scene without considering how it relates to my chapter one, so my advice incorporates both. That being said, there isn’t going to be a “one size fits all” answer on this one. If you were expecting one, get privy to the fact that there’s no singular way to write. Instead, I only have suggestions to offer that aren’t any kind of rule book. They’re what worked for me and got me past my phobia of writing my first words in any story. Hopefully, these suggestions will serve you in the way the did me.
I always love reading an eye-catching opening line when I crack open a book. Regardless of whether it’s the first line of a book or a chapter, nothing gets me more pumped then immediately wanting to know more. Sometimes a chapter opens with dialogue. The middle of a conversation that isn’t always a pleasant one. Even better if the character’s been caught doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing. Other times, the opening line is action. A bugle’s sounds in the distance and our protagonist is introduced through an emotional response to said distant bugle.
The first thing to realize about opening scenes is how they strongly suggest what the story about. This includes the tone you’ll use, the characters you’re casting, if the story is character, plot or world driven, etc. Both examples offer suggestions of what the story may be about because of the subject of their focus. The first example focuses on the protagonist and conflict they’re facing before anything else is established. This strongly suggests a character driven story.
The second example focuses more on something happening in the character’s environment that elicits an emotional response from the protagonist. The character’s environment claims the first words and introduces the protagonist immediately after. This strongly suggests a world-driven story since the protagonist is firstly reacting to something outside of their own head.
Both examples also offer a quick and solid set up for spending the next few sentences building the world around these scenarios. Scenario one will require elaboration on why there is tension around something the protagonist did prior to the story’s start. The second scenario will require elaboration on why a bugle sounding in the distance encouraged the emotional reaction of the protagonist it did. Beginning an opening scene with a scenario that will require elaboration will make your job as the writer easier.
What’s The First Impression Your Protagonists Give Off?
Here’s a question I like to pose when I’m editing my opening scenes. What impression do you want your readers to take away from meeting your protagonist? First impression’s aren’t everything, but they are telling. What I mean by this is, some of my best friends were first encountered with a bad first impression. Not because I have jerks for friends but because I often have the uncanny luck of running into people at a bad moment. Sometimes I happen upon someone brought to tears after getting yelled at by a rude customer. Other times I see someone fully absorbed in a deep-thought scowl only to smile brightly once they snap out of it and realize they’re being watched. First impressions suggest a lot but don’t define a moment. So what will your protagonist’s first impression be? How will the moment that follows truly define your character on the first page? Maybe your protagonist has a temper and shouts demeaningly at an employee…only to be interrupted by a call from their husband who’s ready to be picked up from chemotherapy.
Catch Your Protagonist on Their Worst Day
If you’re having trouble thinking of how to start a scene, start with a character’s worst day. We’re our most honest when dealing with conflict, especially conflict we weren’t prepared to deal with. Seeing how your characters react to a negative situation communicates a lot about who they are. Maybe this worst day starts out as a day the protagonist was looking forward to and it’s gone terribly wrong. Maybe this is a day your protagonist has dreaded and the story starts with how miserably they’ve handled the situation.
Regardless of whether your story is character, plot or world driven, you’ll be forced to explore how the negative result affects the factors of the scenario. Maybe the negative result affects the character’s status in their community. Maybe the result affects the community as a whole. Which ever it is, the lines following your opening scene will require you to establish those tensions.
Save the Cat Moment
Which brings us to establishing the protagonist’s “save the cat moment.” If you don’t know what that is:
A “save the cat moment” is an early moment in any story where the protagonist establishes an emotional connection with the reader by inspiring sympathy or empathy through action.
Your “save the cat” moment can be the literal first lines of your story or what your opening scene builds towards. Sometimes the “save the cat” moment is the cause of your character’s first brush with danger or tension. “Sticking your neck out always leads to trouble”. Other times, the “save the cat” moment is the moment your character gets their first taste of improving their circumstances. “Once you get a taste, you’ll always want more.” Both offer opportunity to work a scenario that people can connect to. This is especially true if they can relate to tension faced by the protagonist.
What establishing the status quo usually requires
Speaking of establishing tensions: when writing opening scenes, I always think ahead to what is required of my first chapter. What boxes do I want to check by the end of chapter one? How can my opening scene ease my reader in so I can check off the first box? Usually in a three act structure, your first task in chapter one is establishing the status quo. Where does your protagonist currently fit in their community? Do they like their place in life? What is it they want? What is the protagonist’s first impression of what they need? Let your opening scene help you get to the point on all these questions.
Try using these suggestions as checkboxes when working your opening scene. What first impression do you want readers to take away from your opening scene? What kind of day is your protagonist having? How does this moment lead you to the status quo? Think about the first impressions you’ve had of people in your life and what you learned about them in the moments that followed. What are characters perceiving when they look at your protagonist? Does the reader see deeper? That will all be up to you and the first impression you intend for your story to have.