With the new year opening before us, it’s a good time to start thinking about beginnings. More specifically, how to begin a story. Beginning lines and scenes are two of the things that need the most polish and effort put into them, largely because those are the first two things a reader sees when they start your book.
That fact alone can make them feel daunting, and there are some arguments about what should or should not be done. Keep in mind that at the end of the day, you are the writer and you’re the one who ultimately has to be happy with where you choose to start.
Because opening scenes are a little bigger, it can help to start there, especially during the early drafts. Leave your first line for a little bit. Just get something down so you can get to the rest of it, even if it is something like ‘Once upon a time in Anytown, Any Country, there was a boy/girl/robot/bird/etc.’ You can rewrite and fiddle with the first line once you have an idea of what you’re starting with.
That first scene will need to do a couple of major things, hence we’re starting there.
- Establish a goal.
- Introduce the character(s)
- Establish conflict
I’ll note here that introducing characters comes as a secondary to establishing what they want. Characters can be a lot of things–but goals mean every thing. I might not like your character right away, but if I know what they want, that gives me a reason to stick around and see if they accomplish their goal. Giving your characters a goal gives your readers a reason to keep reading.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
That said, you do need to introduce your character to us. Make sure you get their name and any pertinent details about them down in that first scene. This is the first time we’re ‘seeing’ your character, and since we don’t have a picture of them, if we spend two chapters reading about them and picturing them as a short, stocky guy only to find out they’re a willowy, lithe model it throws readers off, and we’ll still spend the rest of the book picturing them as a short, stocky guy.
The key there is pertinence. These are pretty simple–basic physical description and maybe one or two interesting notes such as scars, tattoos or enchanted jewelry. Don’t get hung up on every detail of their hair, clothes, eyes, etc. Keep it relevant to what’s going on in the scene and story. I don’t need to know that your MC hates his hair being short because it reminds him of his too-strict military father. I just need to know your MC wears his hair long because that’s what he prefers, even if it is a little messy.
That also goes for initial parts of backstory. When introducing a character, avoid dumping their life story right in the first few paragraphs. Give us a teaser–he’s had a strained relationship with his father since the accident. She’s still carrying guilt about what happened to her sister. Little clues about big events in their life before the story deepens reader investment–not only do we now want to see whether or not they get to their goal, but we also want to find out what happened before we met them.
The final thing your opening scene needs to do is establish conflict. This doesn’t have to be your main conflict right away, but there needs to be some sort of conflict. If we take Kurt Vonnegut’s advice and make their first goal a glass of water, that’s fine. If they get out of bed, go to the sink and get a glass of water, then we’ve got an open-and-closed conflict with no reason to keep reading.
If however, their attempt to get water is interrupted by finding a burglar in their home stealing all of their drinking glasses, that’s conflict: they now need to get their cups back before they can get a drink.
With your opening scene established, you can come back to your first line now. If you did indeed write a throw away line, you can go ahead and throw it out now. If not, here’s an exercise to help you find the first line you like:
- Write the first line as a statement of fact, or as a pairing of facts.
- Write your first line as a piece of dialogue.
- Write it as an action sentence.
- Write it as a metaphor or simile.
- Write it as if your main character wrote it–use their voice.
- Write it with as vivid imagery as you can.
Do these separate sheets of paper (I like using post-it notes for this). Have a couple of friends or critique partners read over your first line choices and have them note down which ones make them want to keep reading. Once you have the feedback, look at which ones fit your scene. Look at what fits your scene and which of the top three choices you like best. If you’re torn or stuck, try building an opening paragraph from your remaining choices–which paragraph flows the best, or makes you want to keep reading?