Guest Post: The Burden of Your Novel’s Opening Scene

A guest post by noted author and blogger C. S. Lakin.

Think of your novel as a gold mine, with a mother lode resting deep in the heart of a mountain. In order to get to that treasure, you have to build a sturdy framework as you dig into all that dirt and rock. You don’t want the mine to collapse on your head—that would spell disaster.

Now think about the entrance to the mine, which is particularly important to attend to. All the bracing and construction that follows will be built off that initial structure. So if it’s flawed or built with flimsy materials . . . well, we’re back to disaster.

So how is all this like a novel? 

In order to get to the heart of your story, the “”entrance” must be set up clearly in the first pages of your novel. Most authors know that the beginning of a novel is the most crucial and carries the weightiest burden of any other scene or chapter in your entire book.

The opening scene must convey so many things that often the author will have to rewrite it numerous times to get it right, and sometimes the best time to rewrite the opening scene is when your novel is done. Why? Because at that point you have (one hopes) developed your rich themes and motifs, thoroughly explored your protagonist’s heart and character arc, and have brought your plot to a stunning and satisfying conclusion.

Your Opening Scenes Support the Entire Novel

Since the first one or two scenes carry the burden of the whole book, if they don’t have the correct structure to hold back the tons of dirt [read: the next 70,000 words or more] overhead from falling, you’re looking at a potential (or probable) collapse of the whole story. No way will the miners make it to the heart, where the big pocket of gold awaits. More than likely they will be choking on dust and crawling and clawing their way back out to a place they can lick their wounds, clean up a bit, and ponder how in the world they will find another way in. Whereas, they could have successfully journeyed to the heart had they but taken the time to reinforce the entrance.

Starting Is Better Than Finishing

There’s an ancient proverb that goes like this: “Finishing is better than starting.” And therein lies great wisdom, to be sure. I can start a whole lot of projects, but the real test of perseverance, success, and merit is in the finishing. However . . . when it comes to writing a great novel, starting is more important than finishing—at least when it comes to the importance of your major story elements. If you have every essential thing in place in your first scene, you will have set up the entire book in a way that will lead you wonderfully to the finish line.

The First-Page Checklist

I am often asked to do one-on-one critiques at writers’ workshops and events, and because those appointments are usually a scant fifteen minutes long, I came up with a way to dive into each writer’s story in that short time. They are instructed to bring page one of their novel, and in that short span of time I read it, then go over a number of important elements that need to be on the first page—using my handy “First-Page Checklist.”

Granted, not everything on the list must be on page one, but the idea is to be aware of all the elements needed to appear early in a novel—in order to set up that strong entrance to the mine. I believe that the closer to page one you can get all these components, the better. I have heard other writing instructors say similar things in their workshops as well.

Without sending you into cardiac arrest by listing nearly twenty important items you need in that first scene, I’m going to concentrate on some important ones—the ones that really need to be considered.

So here for easy reference (and also here, as a pdf you can download) , is the First-Page Checklist.

First Page Checklist

____ Opening Hook: Clever writing and image that grabs the reader

____ Introduction of main character in first few lines

____ Starting the story in the middle of something that’s happened (or happening)

____ A nod to setting; avoid excessive exposition or narrative

____ A catalyst, inciting incident, or complication introduced for your character

____ A hint at character’s immediate intentions

____ A hint at character’s hidden need, desire, goal, dream, fear

____ Unique voice/writing style

____Setting the tone for the entire book

____ A glimpse at character’s personal history, personality—shed light on motivation

____ Introduction of plot goal

____ A course of action/decision implied: introduction of high stakes/dramatic tension

____ Pacing: jump right into present action. No back story

Think of:

·        One characteristic to reveal that makes your character heroic and vulnerable

·        One element of mystery, something hinted at that raises curiosity

·        One element out of the ordinary, unusual, that makes your book different/stand out

·        Concise, catchy dialogue (if in the first scene) that is not boring or predictable

·        A way to hint at your theme, if you have one

You don’t want to be that miner who is left scratching his head at the collapse of his mine shaft after an earthquake, wondering what he did wrong. Just as with anything you build, it’s all about the foundations—the materials and design used to ensure that structure you have delineated on those blueprints will stand the test of time.

You can “build” you novel so it, too, stands the scrutiny of critics and has lasting power as it speaks to untold people regardless of time or place. With careful planning, you can make it to the heart of your mine and load up your sack with gold. Take the time to shore up the framework of your novel’s “entrance.” In doing so, you’ll learn how to construct a firm entrance for your mining operation that it will serve you time and again with each novel you write—leading the reader to the heart of your story.

C. S. Lakin is a multi-published novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copy editor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog,Live Write Thrive. Her latest book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here.

Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

16 Comments

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16 Responses to Guest Post: The Burden of Your Novel’s Opening Scene

  1. Thank you. This is very useful information. I love the checklist.

  2. Stupendous tool. This goes on my checklist for my checklists 😉

    Glad to see that, at first glance, my latest first page ticks all the boxes.

  3. MikeR

    A family friend, now passed away, was an old-school newspaperman from the “hot lead” (as in, Linotype Machine …) days, and he once told me that in his day the copy writers usually did not write the leading paragraph. The section editors would do that. They’d often cross out the first few lines of what the writer -had- written and then, with a typewriter or sometimes with a scribble, they would write a “hot lead” (pun intended) before sending it down to the “hot lead” (pun) people on the floors below. The opening sentences of a story were the most important ones, and, in the case of a page-one or section page-one, they basically sold the newspaper. They were always written last.

    He also told the tale of one senior editor who would exhort his writers with the movie director’s call: “ACTION!” His meaning: that the stories -had- to be told with “action.”

    “Sweat over” your opening, after all the rest of it is done (or at least, specified). And then, hand it to somebody else to read. Preferably, someone who knows nothing about your story. Someone who can read it and tell you if it makes sense; that you’re not referring to some juicy detail from future pages without having actually introduced it yet. And, someone who can be sure that you, in your earnestness to set your stage properly, have not become a boring “talking head” who is talking -about- your story instead of telling it.

  4. Wonderful post – helpful list. Thank you.

  5. nancy

    I’ve seen several blogs giving advice on the urgency of page one. The information is so useful. But . . . What counts as page 1 if there is a one-page prologue? Usually the prologue is a hook (mine does not include the main character), so would it count as page one, and if so would it need the things on your checklist?

  6. @Nancy — my take… it’s not so much shooting for Page 1 (and I’m a big fan of “hooks”), as it is getting it in there quickly, or sooner rather than later. Sometimes the page 1 appeal is simply the writing itself, but if the hook doesn’t sink (plot-wise) on page 1 — which is actually hard to make happen — it should have begun its setup there, and delivered an OMG moment after a handful of pages. Give ’em something to want to know more about, and fast… that’s the overriding goal, IMO. L.

  7. Hi Nancy, a lot of what goes on the “first page” has to do with the introduction of the hero and his goal, so if the opening scene is not about him yet (but the next scene better be!), other things on that list should be set up right away, and you of course want a hook in there. Something of the premise and the core conflict, for example, can be set up in that prologue. But once you get into the hero’s first scene, that first page needs to showcase those goals, needs, fears, glimpse of greatness, etc. Often times prologues really aren’t needed and are used by inexperienced authors as a way of dumping info onto the page. Many of my novels have creative prologues that I use as cinematic devices, and I really do love a great, appropriate prologue. But they need to be used for very specific reasons and should bring out as many of those needed first things right away.

  8. Robert Jones

    I once read there is nothing that a prologue can offer that can’t be placed more appropriately elsewhere in a story. In many cases, I would agree with this. Sometimes a prologue can be a handy tool. But you’re pretty much starting your novel twice because both the prologue and the first scene have to perform the job of pulling the reader into the story.

    I think this checklist is great reference tool. Not every story may be capable of getting all these things on page one, but the consensus is that your story needs to get rolling ASAP and show the hero in some kind of trouble, or heading for it in a way that incites curiosity. The main character needs to be introduced in an interesting, or memorable way. If they have eccentricities, can they be played up in some way right off visually?

    Hooks can come in many guises, and strong characterization can be an effective early hook.

    Great opening lines, as MikeR pointed out, are always a hook for the reader. And I agree that the best time to consider them is directly after the story is finished because openings can be a sort of thesis that hints at character arc, plot, or events of some importance:

    Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and i said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so…was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.”

    That’s the opening of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” by Arthur Golden. Did it seem to pull you in? Make you curious to know why it was “the very worst afternoon?”

    Omens of things to come can be effective hooks. And isn’t that what most prologues do anyway? However, a good opening line can often do as much as a ten page prologue.

    Sometimes it might take a first paragraph:

    I was to learn that all the real secrets are buried and that only ghosts speak the truth. So it was fitting: even for me, all this began in a graveyard, among mysteries, memories, and lies.

    That’s from “The Red Fox,” by Anthony Hyde. It’s intriguing, plus it’s short–two sentences. The next paragraph jumps right into the first scene, which is filled with great visuals of the main character walking through the cemetery with an old priest to visit his father’s grave. By page three, we understand the guy’s father killed himself and the reasons have been a mystery he needs answers to…and the quest begins.

    And even though it took the first three pages to work most C. S. Lakin’s check list in there, the points are very much apparent and the hook that incited curiosity was planted right away.

    For agents and publishers, many will not read more than the first page. Some will only read the first half of the first page before deciding to reject an author, or pass the manuscript along to an associate to read. That’s why so much fuss is made about page one for new authors. Because you really don’t have much time to show these people you can write.

    There was a study some years ago in book stores that showed readers aren’t much better. Most were said to have read the first three pages of a novel, flip to the back cover, or dust jacket, then either put the book down, or carry it to the register. Hence, all the BS about putting your best writing up front.

    The unfortunate things is that I’ve read my fair share of best-selling, even prize winning novels that had great writing and strong imagery in those first few pages, sometimes even a terrific first chapter, then that type of writing and imagery was not repeated–even sporadically–in the rest of the book. Which means the author either got some help punching up their beginning, or pushed hard to make that small section of the book great and slacked off on everything else.

    So, secret for writers: if you want to make sure the writing is consistent in a novel, you might want to open the book to a couple of random places, read a few pages, and see if the writing and imagery is holding up okay.

    One more opening line/hook, and it takes all of six words:

    They shoot the white girl first.

    Do you put the book down after that line? Most people couldn’t, since it became a #1 New York Times best-seller. That’s from “Paradise,” by Toni Morrison.

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  10. I like your list of important things to have in the first page (or two).

    Interestingly, my first draft had none of these. Not one. It was a long boring explanation of nothing. Thankfully, I found a very helpful editor at an independent publishing agency who took interest in my book. She became a mentor of sorts and helped me to reshape my book in a way that would better appeal to readers.

    I’m proud to say that now, my book has almost all of your points in the first page (or two). Your list is very accurate, and important in hooking readers.
    Thanks for your article.

  11. Thank you for a great article and a tool that’s saved to my Essential Writing Tools file. The first page of my current story is pretty good, but not good enough yet.

    Love that mine entrance analogy!

  12. Pingback: The Burden of Your Novel’s Opening Scene by C. S. Lakin | Toni Lopopolo Literary Management

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  14. Samuel J. Patrick

    Excellent! I agree. Fortunately, I pass your test in my novel. The Leesport School District.

  15. Having just finished three days of consuming Larry’s recent package of videos, audio and books from Writer’s Digest, and beginning the re-plotting of the 2nd draft of my current work, I simply don’t see how the first page could — or should have to — bear such a burden. How can a 250-word page fulfill the last point (“Pacing: jump right into present action. No back story”) and at the same time fulfill the other points, such as giving a nod to setting; introducing an inciting incident; hinting at the character’s hidden need, goal, dream, fear; a glimpse at his/her personal history and personality (“no backstory”?); and introducing the goal of the plot and an implied course of action? And that’s not all of them!

    I’m sorry, but I cannot envision such a page with only 250 words. Am I the only person who felt this way?

    Samuel J. Patrick, I read the first few chapters of your novel, and I like it. However, the first page (ending with Mike addressing the kid in the bathroom) doesn’t really meet the requirements of the checklist, though the first chapter comes very close to that goal. I just don’t see how an opening page — even two of them — could do all of it and not seem thin and underdeveloped.

    I sincerely hope someone will reply …

    It’s a great website, Larry!

  16. @Bill — thanks for the comment. I think the point of C.S. Lakin’s guest post here resides in the title: the “Opening Scene.” She refers to opening “pages” (plural) in her first few paragraphs, and suggests this thinking applies opening “scenes” (plural) rather than a hard line context of the first scene only. Her checklist, I believe, aligns nicely with the notion of “the opening scenes,” which implies the first/opening scene (not just the first page), or inclusive of the second or third scene, is the place to launch the story effectively. The “hook” is the point, and a good hook has several flavors.

    What a first PAGE should absolutely aspire to is to showcase the writer’s narrative voice and style, and to avoid a full page of “it was a dark and stormy night” level of descriptive ambiance.

    I agree, the checklist seems, via its title (versus the POST’s title, which is clearer), to ask a lot of a first page. She does caveat it, stating that it all doesn’t have to be there… and YOUR point is well taken, it’s hard-to -impossible to get all that goodness onto a first page. At least one that works and doesn’t read like the back cover of a paperback.

    Her opening point, beginning with the title, is golden. Any confusion relative to the “first page” is, well, dependent on how literal one wants or needs to be (IMO). Add a pluralizing “s” to that word — page, into “pages” — and it’s all good. Hope this helps. Larry