The opening of a story should catch the reader’s interest right away.
The TOP priority of the opening scene is making the reader want to know what will happen next. Many readers have short attention spans and will only give a book a few pages to grab them. Opening scenes must get the reader invested in the characters and the story very quickly.
Tips for Writing a Great Opening Scene
Start with conflict or tension. It’s important to present some sort of problem early on, even if that problem is simply that the character is unhappy or something is off in their world.
Start with the story, NOT the backstory. Wait to give the reader the character’s full story. Focus on where the character’s life is currently at so the reader can see why or how it needs to change or what is disrupting it.
Introduce the characters in a way that focuses on the individual, not the “type” of character they are. Stay away from stereotypes in general, but especially in the opening scene. This can turn readers off very quickly. Highlight unique traits to pique the reader’s interest.
Be specific but brief in setting the scene and with description. Give the reader a sense of when, where, and how the character exists in his or her world, but don’t overdo it. The reader should usually be more focused on the character than the world. Orient the reader, then save all the other exciting or fascinating aspects of the world for later.
Set the tone of the story through description, action, dialogue, etc. Pay attention to how your describe the world and character. Match the tone to your wording choices and what you choose to focus on. A character who thinks their life is amazing will notice pleasant things in his or her surroundings. An unhappy or frightened character will notice things that feed into the perceptions and emotions that are experiencing.
Make promises to the reader that you WILL keep by the end: finding love, solving a mystery, learning something, etc. Even if you are a pantser and don’t know exactly how the story will end when you begin writing, you should have a general idea. the opening should mirror the ending, in most cases, and show how the character changes from their initial state in the opening scene to the final chapter.
Tips to Avoid a Lackluster Opening Scene
Don’t open with heavy description or backstory. Readers will often get bored and lose interest in the character if she or he is not the main focus of the story. Be concise and stay focused on what will engage the reader.
Don’t open in the middle of confusing events. Starting in the middle of action is fine, but it needs to be understandable, unless your goal is to confuse the reader, which I don’t recommend. Be clear about who is involved, when and where it is taking place, and what the main conflict is.
Don’t open with too many characters. Generally, it’s best to stick to three or fewer characters in an opening scene. It’s overwhelming for readers to meet so many characters at once and try to determine their important, how they fit into the story, and whether they are good or bad (to put it very simply).
Don’t open with a dream or flashback. Some writers do manage to do this effectively, but most don’t. There’s always a risk of upsetting the reader, even if it is done well. If you feel that you absolutely must start with a dream or flashback, make it crystal clear that is what the reader is experiencing so they are confused and don’t feel like to when you make the switch.
Don’t open with a cliché. This is basically anything that will make a reader roll their eyes or think, Oh, it’s that kind of story. The girl standing in front of a mirror describing herself to the reader is a personal pet peeve of mine. I will put a book down for that reason alone.
Don’t open with flowery language. Get to the point of the scene without a meandering trip through the garden. Readers get bored quickly.
Don’t open with “telling.” Show the reader what they need to know using dialogue, action, internal thought, or interactions. Heavy exposition makes a scene drag and long internal soliloquies are exhausting. Think of it as a movie scene. If nothing is happening that the reader can “see,” go back through this checklist and start cutting.
Don’t open with a stolen prologue to fix a boring beginning. Pasting a later scene onto the beginning of a story to make it more interesting is lazy. If your opening scene isn’t interesting enough to stand on it’s own, it needs reworked. Rethink the structure and point of the opening. It should introduce the main character, their current situation, their problem, and a hint at what’s to come next.
Use your opening scene to hook the reader by presenting an interesting character, a problem the reader wants to see solved, and a world that ties the two together.