- Start with something happening. This doesn’t have to be ninja-attacking action – it can be an argument. Something with conflict and tension. You don’t want the trite opening of someone contemplating their boring life and ready for some change, or a character waking up and looking into a mirror so you can describe them. Catch them with some action. It doesn’t have to be world-disaster action – it could be something as simple as a phone call or overhearing a co-worker gossip about you. Still, the first scene should have something interesting/exciting going on to draw the reader in.
- On the other hand, don’t start in the middle of OO much action. You don’t want to confuse the poor reader before you give them a chance to care for your characters.
- Name your character quickly. I would suggest the first three lines. It doesn’t have to be his full title and associations. You don’t have to mention his name is King Ruaidrí mac Con Ulad Mac Duinn Sléibe. You could just say King Ruaidrí, or simply the King. But give the character a name, perhaps a bit of his personality, right away. Don’t keep him as a nebulous blob. Not naming him is distancing, and the reader doesn’t connect with them.
- This is particularly true if you have dialogue as your opening line. Tell us who is talking right away! Too many unreferred pronouns can easily confuse. It’s perfectly clear in YOUR mind’s eye, but new readers are a blank slate.
- Avoid long exposition or scenery (data dump). Exposition is lovely, It’s needful, but in small doses. The opening scene of a book is especially vulnerable to such things. One line at a time, interspersed in the action or dialogue, is much more palatable. Yes, I know you want to open the door into your lush and imaginative world. Baby steps!
- IF you decide to start with a bit of philosophy, make sure it segues into your story nicely and fairly quickly. Many classic novels start out this way, and that’s wonderful. See below for some examples. But that is no longer the ‘popular style’ so if you are going to try to make that work, make sure it’s flawless.
- Match your sentence length to the action. If there is a fire, use short, choppy sentences to increase tension and immediacy. If the action is a gate crasher at a Victorian tea party, you can use longer sentences to match the more relaxed setting.
- It’s tempting to be mysterious and flowery in the opening lines. If this is epic fantasy, even more so. But TOO much mystery can be off-putting as well. Each ‘unknown’ is stored in a reader’s brain as something to discover. There are only so many unknowns a reader is willing to hold onto until he is bored and tosses the book at the wall.
- Even if you are looser with your other scenes, make sure the opening scene has definite structure. Beginning, middle and closure. The purposes of any scene is to give essential information to the reader AND to make the reader want more. Ensure the opening scene does all that.
- Try to only introduce 2-3 characters in the opening scene. Readers are just meeting these people – let the reader get to know them a little before bringing in another player.
- On that note, make us care for the main character right away. Give us some details about her. Is she avoiding sweets because it will make her fat? Is he worried about the bosses new favorite employee taking over? Is he hung over because his girlfriend dumped him for his best friend?
- “It was a Dark and Stormy Night”. Don’t start with the weather. It’s trite, overdone, and pretty boring. Unless your characters are about to be hit by a hurricane or a tsunami, of course.
- Your opening scene may not be the right one when you’re done with your first draft. My first book I chopped off the first four chapters, and chapter five became chapter one.
Yes, those are a lot of rules. And there are many others!
January 5th, 1177AD
Dún Dá Leathghlas (Downpatrick), Ulster, Ireland
“She’s a witch, Rí Ulad.”
Orla stopped dead in her tracks. She wasn’t in the habit of listening to the King’s conversations, but the stranger must be speaking of her. The fact that the speaker used the formal title of King of the Ulaidh meant he was someone important. She hadn’t learned how to survive in this wicked world by ignoring potential threats. She pressed her ear against the solid oak door. A rustle in the thatch above her distracted her, but it was only a rat come in from the cold.
- “Call me Ishmael” – Moby Dick
- “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – One Hundred Years of Solitude
- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – Anna Karenina
- “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Fahrenheit 451
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – A Tale of Two Cities
- “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984
- “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” – The Trial
- “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” – The Catcher in the Rye
- “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” – City of Glass
- “Mother died today” – The Stranger
- “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” – The Debut
- “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
- “He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” – Orlando