Sunday, February 19, 2012

Opening Scene Dissection

I am still not sure I am satisfied with the opening scene of my WIP. I’ve left it alone for a few weeks, and today came across a chapter in Hooked, by Les Edgerton, that offers a priority list of where to start, and what information needs to be excluded.

I’ve already trimmed a chapter and a half of backstory. Edgerton writes:
Unless a book is part of an already established series, it opens on a blank world. A reader knows nothing about the situation or the characters. This is why it is tempting to write backstory, feeling the need to bring the reader up to date with a set up.

He says the most essential components of an opening scene are:
1. Inciting incident—the event that creates the lead’s initial surface problem and sets the stage for the story-worthy problem. This is the “action” part of the story, the part that is plot-based.
2. Story-worthy problem—the deep, inner life changing issue or character trait the lead will resolve by the end of the book.
3. The Initial Surface problem—the first, outer problem the main character has to solve as a result of the inciting incident. It propels the lead to take action.
4. The Set-up—the first few words that orient the reader in the opening scene. Who and where and what’s happening.

Secondary components:
5. Backstory—anything and everything that has happened up to the time of the inciting incident.
6. Opening Line
7. Language—avoid adverbs. Limit adjectives.
8. Character introduction—by showing their reactions to the inciting incident.
9. Setting
10. Foreshadowing.

The reader doesn’t need to understand what led to the opening situation in order to fully realize the significance of what’s happening when trouble begins.

Trust the reader.


  1. Opening scene is vital - you have to hook your reader in the first couple of pages.
    I don't think it's as complicated as Edgerton says, though. The main thing is to introduce one of the protagonists and get the reader asking questions.
    In Fragrance of Violets, the words 'Jack Tremaybe's back' (from a secondary character) causes the heroine Abbey to drop something in shock. Immediately the reader must wonder 'Who's Jack Tremayne? Back where and from what? Why is Abbey so shocked? Something must have happened between them - what?" That was the response I got from most commenters when I posted the first six sentences on Six Sentence Sunday a few weeks ago.
    For me, the opening has to make the readers ask questions, and then they'll want read on! It's as simple as that!
    (And, having said all that, I've known for a while that I need to change the start of my WIP's first chapter!)

  2. Very good advice, Ana, thank you. I've just had a quick look at the first paragraph of my WIP and I think it fits with this okay!

  3. Ana, this is a great list! I'm printing it out to put in the 'keep' file!

    Usually I tend to open right in the middle of the action. However, I just sent a mss off to my editor today that starts at a bit of a slower pace. I guess only time will tell if it's going to work ot not!

  4. Love the list of things to keep in mind. I love the opening of my WIP, but may have to change it because I think it's a little heavy on setting. You definitely want to hook the reader (and editor!).

  5. I think many rules can be broken, but a list of rules is a good thing.