Rock That Opening Scene

Writing YA teaches you an important tenet. Teens are impatient. They crave quick results along with action, high stakes, energy, conflict, dialogue. When writing for teens you need to grab them by the throat and squeeze, tight. (Sort of what you want to do them in real life every now and again.) But really, doesn’t this apply to us all? So the rule should always be: start with a bang and keep on running.

I strived to incorporate the ten components of an opening scene as outlined in “Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go” by Les Edgerton. They are: a stellar opening sentence, the inciting incident, the story-worthy problem, the initial surface problem, the setup, the backstory, appropriate language for the audience, character introduction, setting, and foreshadowing. The trick is to hit as many of these vital storytelling elements as you can, while keeping the tension and action high. You don’t need all of these elements on the first page, but strive for as many as you can. This gives you the best chance of hooking a reader.

Take setting, for example. Rather than describing the geography or the weather, make it do something. Have your character feel the weather, feel the chair she’s sitting on … the air and sounds in the room. Use the weather. Don’t report it, as in “It was a dark and stormy night.” Think of it as one of your characters. Sensory details bring the story to life. The same goes for character description. Instead of listing the traits of your characters, let your reader experience them through dialogue or action. Make her long dark hair whip at her face instead of just telling us she has long dark hair. Make the physicality come alive. Of course, even a novice writer will identify this as “show, don’t tell.”

Foreshadowing the story-worthy problem is important in the opening scene. In order to lure the reader in and keep the tension high, hint at information but don’t reveal it right away. Plant a seed. If you open with a battle don’t tell us who is good or evil, just give us the problem, set the stage and let the tension build regarding who should win and who should lose. If it’s a thriller, set the chase, give the crime scene, but make the reader wonder what’s really going on. Give us those sinister feelings, make us wonder what the character’s intent might be, help set the mood with the weather. The reader’s pulse should quicken as the storm brews. We may not know exactly what the problem is, but we know it’s bad and we know the character is in trouble.

Go easy with backstory. Backstory needs to be foreshadowed, cryptic even. There’s nothing more frustrating then when an author has my pulse racing and then suddenly I’m jerked backward, when what I really want is to surge forward. Just when you feel you’ve entered the character’s life at a crucial moment you’re suddenly thwarted by historic events. And understand the difference between backstory and background.

Often, writers give us the details of the opening scene- the background and maybe some backstory, but they forget the emotions. They forget to make us care. We not only want to know what happened, we want to know how and why. We don’t root for situations or even for people. We root for a person. If your protagonist is facing death don’t tell us he’s afraid to die, everyone is afraid to die, tell us why he’s afraid to die. Who will be left behind? What desires or tasks in his life will never be fulfilled. And when it comes to details remember this old adage: “Don’t put a rifle on the wall if you don’t intend to use it.” Everything in a story should be there for a reason, it should never be frivolous or filler.

Take a look at some of your fave books and see how they measure up. Do you feel the emotions? Does the setting, the background, come alive? Is there foreshadowing of a story-worthy problem? A hint at backstory? Is the language appropriate for the audience and is it consistent with the time period?

Does that opening scene rock? 

Up Next from Caryn? Using the five senses.

Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

1 thought on “Rock That Opening Scene”

  1. Page 1 of the Hunger Games does this all brilliantly! The first sentence is smart show-don’t-tell: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” She could have just said the bed was empty, but used a sense of feeling instead. Plus, the reader is instantly intrigued – who is supposed to be there? And by the end of that short first paragraph the “reaping” is mentioned, but not explained. Ooo, foreshadowing the story-worthy problem! Then in the next two paragraphs Katniss describes her family (set up) and even the cat (quick backstory reveals tough life). And because Hunger Games is written in the 1st person, it’s easy to feel the protagonist’s emotions as she describes her family: “Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.” Emotions – love for Prim, doubt about mother.

    Thanks for the tips, Caryn! I’ll make sure to review my first pages for all this good stuff.

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