How important is it, really?
Starting your story in the correct moment is vital. The opening scene is going to determine whether or not people keep reading, and if you don’t get their attention and focus right away, they’re going to put the story down. (Whether ‘it’ happens to be fan fiction, flash fiction, a short story, or a novel.)
But how do you know what the correct moment is? Don’t you need to introduce characters, and set-up the world, and the plot?
There’s a simple way to know what the correct moment is – and as for the other questions… yes, and no.
Here’s your first rule of writing – assume that your readers are (will be) smart. Not necessarily Einstein-smart, but definitely can-navigate-on-their-own smart. If they can read directions, they should be able to read your story.
Also, the correct moment to start a story is when the story begins. Not ten years before the story begins. Not five minutes before the story begins. When the first thing that throws the plot into action starts.
What the Opening Scene Needs to Accomplish
It must hook your readers.
Ideally, you should be hooking your readers from the very first sentence. It’s important to do this with every scene in the story, but absolutely vital for the first one.
Just think about your favorite stories. What are some opening lines?
“1801—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord- the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with.” ~ Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
“I remember being born.” ~ Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.” ~ The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” ~ The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” ~ Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
Why do all of these lines work so well? They jump right into the story. They may not reveal the entire plot, but they reveal just enough to make you want to know more.
In the case of Wuthering Heights, it barely even hints at the trouble that is to come, and yet it’s obvious the tenant (who is narrating that sentence) is already uneasy about his landlord, and they’ve only just met.
With Seraphina, it’s more of “Wait, what?” because who ever actually remembers being born? I can’t even remember what I ate for breakfast a week ago.
The Name of the Wind also makes you stop and go “Whaaaaaaaat.” because what is a silence of three parts? And as soon as you register that is indeed what the sentence said, you start reading again, because you want to know.
The Hobbit makes you curious. We are all familiar with holes in the ground – we’ve probably all twisted our ankles in one at least once. But what is a hobbit, and why would it live in a hole?
And, well… then there’s Pride & Prejudice. Because let’s be honest – that opening line is a classic, and it’s beautifully done. It sets the tone for the entire book, forget hooking the reader. Just by reading the first line you know things are going to go hilariously wrong.
So re-evaluate your opening lines – and rewrite them if necessary. Make it so your readers can’t stop with just one sentence.
It must create an emotional connection between the character(s) and the readers.
Readers need a reason to invest in the story, and that reason is usually an emotional connection of some sort. It doesn’t really matter which character this emotional connection is with, though it’s most beneficial to you (the writer) if it is the main character.
That means something has to happen in the opening scene to make us notice a character, and to feel with them. Whether it is something positive or negative – or both – is up to you and what fits the story, but you absolutely have to make the readers care. Make it so they need to know what happens to the characters.
It must, must, MUST advance the plot.
There is nothing quite as frustrating as reading part of a story, and perhaps even adoring part of a story, and then finding out it’s not even relevant to anything else that happens, and that it’s never brought up anywhere again.
Don’t do this with your opening scene. Don’t do it with any scene, but especially not the opening one.
Because people are going (supposed to, at least) to fall in love with your opening scene, and if they are expecting the story to lead one place, and it goes somewhere else… they’re just going to be disappointed. And that means they’re not going to want to pick it up again. Or, worse, they’re not going to want to read anything you write again. Because you don’t know how to follow through on what you’ve promised.
So if that opening scene has nothing to do with the main plot, get rid of it. Even if you love it.
How to Choose Your Opening Scene
If you haven’t written the story yet:
If you like to outline, this is fairly simple to accomplish – you start the story where the plot begins. This isn’t completely fool-proof, though. Outliners may be more prone to trying to explain too much, because we know what the readers are going to need to know for the rest of the story. Beware the info-dump!
If you write as you go, the advice I gave at the very start of this post is what you need to go by. Are you bored? The general rule of thumb is that if you, the author, are bored, well… your readers are going to be too. So cut to the first interesting thing that happens.
If you’re editing/revising the story:
Set aside your current first scene. I don’t care what it is, or how much you love it. Just do it.
And read your story again, this time without that scene.
See if it holds up without it, and if it does, then make sure you’re starting the new first scene in the right spot, too.
Find a good critique partner (or, if you can’t find a fellow writer, bribe a friend who likes to read the genre you write) and have them read the beginning of the story – at least the first few chapters. Specifically ask them to mark where they start to actually get interested in the story. That’s where it needs to begin.
To Prologue, or Not to Prologue?
I’m adding a note here about prologues because I’ve heard a lot of conflicting opinions (including expert opinions) about them.
Have you heard these things?
Readers will skip prologues, so even if it’s a prologue, you should just call it Chapter One.
Prologues are never necessary. They’re always information dumps.
All fantasy/sci-fi should have a prologue!
In all honesty, all three of these are wrong.
Some readers will skip prologues. When I was a teenager, I skipped a prologue a time or two because I didn’t understand the purpose of them. I thought they were the author writing a letter about the story. (This is normally called a preface, not a prologue. They both start with ‘p’. My confusion was justified.) It usually resulted in me being confused in the story later and having to go back and actually read the prologue.
(I learned quickly. Don’t laugh at me. Twice is really good. It took me three times touching the hot stove as a toddler to learn not to touch the burner. Seriously, don’t laugh. I have it on good authority that I am the scariest Ferret. I wield a terrifying hairbrush.)
Here’s the thing:
Prologues have a purpose. But they are not always necessary. Nor are they always bad.
Calling the first scene(s) a prologue does draw more attention to it, though. So everything I’ve just told you about opening scenes? It applies doubly to prologues.
When should you use a prologue?
It completely depends on your genre, and your story.
Prologues are definitely more common in speculative fiction, though they are still used in other genres. They all have the same criteria, though.
- Does it hook the readers?
- Does it create an emotional connection?
- Does it advance the plot?
Gee, does that look familiar? Like I said, a prologue must stand up just as well as the opening scene of Chapter One. However, prologues do have some additional criteria that separates them from being Chapter One.
- Does it introduce (or is it ‘told’ by) a character who is not one of the main point-of-view characters in the story?
- Is there a significant time gap between the events of the prologue and the events of the main story?
A prologue does not require both of those last two criteria, but usually it does conform to at least one of them.