How do I craft the perfect opening scene to hook a reader? This is the question I’ve asked myself for months, and unfortunately, I haven’t figured it out.
My first five opening scene versions have been given the thumbs down for various reasons (too scary, too creepy, not enough action, prologues are out of style, etc), so it’s back to the drawing board.
As I endeavor to write the opening scene for the sixth time, I’ve gone back to research to ensure I understand the necessary ingredients.
Pose an Indirect Question
Some say the hook is an indirect question to the reader to keep them reading in the hopes of revealing the answer.
An example from my personal favorite is Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris:
“I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.”
Right away, I’m wondering: Why would she be waiting for a vampire for years? Who is this vampire? What is she doing at the bar? What is a vampire doing at a bar?
Set the Tone
The first chapter should set the tone of the book. If it’s a romance, opening with something too comedic will confuse and potentially turn off a reader. If the story is horror, starting with something mundane will be frustrating. Give your reader insight into what they can expect for their journey. This is where I stumbled—do I want to highlight the dark edge in my story? Or do I want the romantic elements to be more prominent? Several of the first drafts were far too dark and perhaps even gory, and really didn’t convey the romance.
I like to have a general idea of who the main characters are when I start a book, and as a rule, I think most editors do too. This doesn’t mean the opening scene has to have the protagonist front and center; sometimes starting with the villain can introduce the hero or heroine in a roundabout way.
Introduce the Setting
In addition introducing the main characters, we should introduce the time and place of the story. It’s not necessary to actually state a fact (London, 1967), but we can provide details so readers can make inferences about the where and the when of the story.
Give clues about the magic in your story at the outset, otherwise your readers will be confused when it suddenly pops up.
Engage the Reader’s Interest
What makes an opening interesting enough to grab a reader? A few options might include:
- Start with a melodramatic situation or life-altering event.
- An interesting question (as mentioned before). What are vampires doing in a bar anyway?
- Sometimes a wonderful turn-of-phrase can entice readers to read on. One of the reasons I was reluctant to cut my original opening scene was because of the turn-of-phrase I loved:
“I saw my little doll-shell of a body lying on my kitchen floor in a crumpled heap.”
Then it’s up to us as the writer to determine which opening is most suitable for our story.
Beyond that first line, the conflict has to hook the reader to continue until the final sentence. Hint at the main conflict in the first five pages—the inner turmoil, the difficult decision that the reader can expect to unfold and be resolved.
Above all else, ensure the first ten pages are perfect. Check for grammar, punctuation and spelling and make sure there isn’t an over reliance on adverbs and adjectives—otherwise, invariably, your manuscript will end up in the dreaded slushpile.
So far, I’m three pages into my opening scene. Again. I’ve introduced my heroine and hero, I’ve begun in the middle of a fight, I’ve introduced the setting, I’ve given hint of the paranormal and magical elements and I’ve shown the inner conflict. So far, so good. I think.
Any further advice on writing the opening scene? Pitfalls to avoid? Formulas for success? Help! I obviously need it!