Monday, April 16, 2012

Opening scene checklist: what to do, and what not to do

The opening scene of any book is the most important.

Though you need to write a story that grips the reader to the very end, providing sufficient conflict and pace to keep the reader turning the pages, and an ending satisfying enough to make the reader want to read your next book, if you haven’t hooked that reader in the first few pages, all the rest will be wasted effort.

Your opening needs to accomplish several things:
Introduce the main characters - this is perhaps the most important aspect of all, as readers need to care, and the only way they will care is if they identify with your central characters.
What’s at stake? Hint at the central conflict and theme of the novel. Every scene, every page, must have conflict (Note: arguments are not conflict. Conflict is wanting something and not being able to get it). This opening scene needs to give the reader an idea of what the novel’s overall conflict will be.
Set the tone of the story - is this a light and fluffy comedy, dark humour, intense and emotional? Let your natural voice shine through.
Set the scene - where in the world is your story located? Give your reader enough description to picture the background, but don’t dwell on it. This is the moment to capture the reader with action and dialogue, not with lavish descriptions.
Start the scene at a point of change. This is not the moment to have your hero or heroine in introspective mode, re-living the past, or waking up, getting dressed, brushing her teeth, making a cup of tea ... start with the moment she sits down in the chair across from her boss and gets told she’s fired.

What not to do:
• Do not bore the reader to tears with your character’s entire back story. That is for you to know and the reader to find out. Slowly, and in bite-size chunks.
• Do not start at such a high point that you cannot top it again for the rest of the novel. You’ll only leave your reader dissatisfied.
• Similarly, don't start in a dramatic style purely to capture the reader's interest, unless you intend to carry that style throughout the novel.
• Avoid stereo-typical beginnings: the alarm clock waking your main character, the car accident between hero and heroine. Aim for a unique and memorable opening.
• Do not forget to polish your scene to within an inch of its life, without losing your voice and uniqueness. Spelling, punctuation, and clear POV are important if you want to be taken seriously.

Our opening scene contest closes on 1st May 2012. For more information, click on the contest logo in the left sidebar.