Crafting Opening Novel Scenes That Pack a Punch

Today’s guest post is by Jennifer Locke.

Novel beginnings are tough.

The writer faced with a blank document must ask herself question upon question.

  • How do I include relevant information regarding time and place without front-loading a lot of backstory?
  • Which key details will set the scene in the reader’s mind?
  • How can I jump right into the action, without leaving my readers completely lost, unmoored from the specifics of story?

We’ve heard all the no-nos.

  • “No” to your protagonist waking up in bed (unless your protagonist is Katniss Everdeen).
  • “No” to your protagonist looking in the mirror and cataloging her features, with an attendant backstory to each one (“I stroked my cornflower-yellow hair and remembered the sunflowers in the field last summer. Gigi and I stood in the middle of them and watched my daddy drive away in his rusty blue pickup. I ain’t seen him since.”)
  • “No” to getting ready for the first day of school or a new job. It’s safe to say your protagonist can skip breakfast and get to the good stuff.

Who’s been guilty of at least one of the above infractions? I’m raising my hand here too.

There are so many things that a first scene needs to accomplish–and beyond that, things that your first few chapters need to do—if your readers are going to keep turning the pages. (I’d recommend Live Write Thrive’s posts on that topic, as well as the first page checklist, to any writer working to nail his opening scenes.)

In order to see what works, let’s examine three opening scenes from best sellers. We’ll take a look at how the opening situations draw in the reader. Then, we’ll get even more immediate and check out the first sentence to see what it reveals about the protagonist.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

American Wife opens with the narrator, Alice Blackwell, in bed beside her snoring husband. The prologue heading tells us their address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Alice thinks of the snipers and rocket launchers on her roof, the heightened 24/7 security, to which, at this point in her husband’s presidency, she has become accustomed. She is losing sleep over whether or not her actions earlier in the day severely undermined her husband, the leader of the free world. Though, Alice is also in a quandary over whether or not the action she took earlier in the day is one she should have taken years ago.

Right away, this opening scene introduces us to an empathetic protagonist, clearly establishes her core conflict, makes her life situation clear, and introduces the main supporting character (her husband).

The first line: “Have I made terrible mistakes?”

Immediately, we get a sense that this is a woman in conflict, someone whose entire life is now in question. As she narrates her story over the next 555 pages, the question posed in the first line will come ever more clearly into focus.

The Shining by Stephen King

We meet Jack Torrance in his interview for the job of caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. The interviewer, Mr. Ullman, tells of the hotel’s history, beginning with a talk Torrance deems a “sales pitch,” before delving into the more sordid details: a man murdered his family there. Despite Ullman’s reservations, Jack gets the job.

This opening does a great job of introducing us to Jack’s core need and motivation. We learn that he’s “retired” from his former job as an English teacher, the reason for that having something to do with his drinking. He’s a family man and needs a job—any job—to meet his wife and child’s needs.

The first chapter also hints at very high stakes. Money has been poured into the Overlook, but it’s not the thriving enterprise its investors hoped it would be. The hotel has a grand history now entrusted to Jack. But there are very real dangers inherent in the position: being physically cut off from society by snow that makes passage to the Overlook impossible for much of the year and the toll that cabin fever can take on a person. And we know how things went terribly wrong for a previous caretaker, who just so happened to have had a penchant for drinking.

The first line: “Jack Torrance thought: officious little prick.”

The reader is introduced to someone who is angry, impatient, with a possible superiority complex.

Now we have all the elements of a page-turning story: a haunted hotel and a man with demons and a short fuse who will live there with his family, cut off from the world.

What could go wrong?

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Hazel is depressed, or so her mother says, and is thereby forced to attend a support group for kids like herself: kids with cancer. Despite some aspects of the group that she finds completely unbearable, after several weeks Hazel meets someone: Augustus. Augustus is hard to ignore because he stares at Hazel unrepentantly. He states, without embarrassment, that he fears “oblivion” and that Hazel is beautiful. Hazel, who sets out merely to endure the support group for the sake of her mother, is now faced with an entirely new possibility: that of a relationship. Of love.

We immediately know that the stakes are high—literally life and death—for Hazel and Augustus. We also get the inciting incident, their meeting, which sets the stage for a love story that will change everything for both.

The first line: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”

Here is a teenager who is articulate, isolated, and frank—unafraid to talk about death, that looming elephant in every room from which everyone else would rather look away.

I want to know what she has to say.

If you’re like me and find novel endings much, much easier than beginnings to write, it’s always helpful to study how the masters do it. In these three examples, each author creates an intriguing first scene with a compelling, empathetic protagonist who jumps off the page from the very first sentence.

Time to weigh in: which novel beginnings are your favorites? Share some great first lines in the comments!

Jennifer Locke is a freelance writer and blogger for hire, as well as a YA author. She specializes in health, parenting, and the craft of writing.  When not writing, she’s usually wrangling her toddler twin daughters or nose-deep in a great book. Follow her on Twitter  and visit her website.

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  1. Is this also true for MG where they have to get to know the protag before they can care? I’m so confused about that. My favorite? “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

  2. I think it’s true for any genre–readers must have something to grab onto which will make them care about the protag, but the writer must find a way to give those little “somethings” without overloading backstory. (It’s so hard!)

  3. I think it’s true of any genre–readers need something to grab onto so they care about character, and writers have to give those little “somethings” without overloading on backstory. It’s such a tricky balance!

  4. Love this post! I like the visual picture that James Sallis paints in his novel Drive.

    Much later, as he sat with his back against the inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he made a terrible mistake.

  5. This blog reminded me of a contest that I first read about in the Washington Post. Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.

    Follow this link to read the 2016 winning opening sentences.

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