Friday, May 13

Choosing the Opening Scene

Like most of these posts, I write this post to answer my own questions. In this case, how does a writer choose the first scene of the story? First lines may pave the way, but not always. Even once the opening scene is written, how do we know that is the best scene to begin with?

First, what makes a strong scene?
Books have been written to answer this question, but to summarize, a successful scene has three parts: goal, conflict, and disaster. Within this scene, we'll get pieces of the character's external/internal arc, setting, dialogue, action, etc.

But what about the first scene, the one and only a literary agent may spend time reading? These are the elements I've found most frequently mentioned as ones to include in the opening scene.

1. The protagonist painted in a light that makes us immediately care for her and give her a signature trait.
2. A mirror of the major conflict at play seen on a smaller scale.
3. Conflict that draws the protagonist out of her comfort zone and moves story forward.
4. Hint at or state character's needs and the story's theme.
5. Voice. This scene sets the tone and pace for the rest of the story.

I think we've all encountered reading that list multiple times, but does it get easier? Maybe. Maybe not.

What definitely helps is looking at examples. Here are a two from books I've recently read:

The Wrath & The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
1. Shahrzad volunteers to become the king's wife despite the threat it poses on her life, all because she wants revenge for her BFF's murder. She doesn't wear necklaces (humble). She's speaks her mind (defiant).
2. Conflict of first scene is meeting the king and agreeing to be his wife after she tells her father farewell, all of this reflects the book's conflict of being his wife and how this impacts her other relationships and her personal struggle with guilt.
3. Shahrzad puts her life at risk and we want to keep reading to see if she will live. This scene is the beginning of her relationship with the king.
4. Her need is to redeem her BFF Shiva, but her deeper need is to love someone and herself despite the flaws.
5. Voice is a contrast of beautiful descriptions and sharp dialogue that keeps the pace moving forward.

Unhooked by Lisa Maxwell
1. Gwen's attentive to her mother's needs and has recently been uprooted from her school and friends to relocate. She pays the taxi driver (responsible). She feels something about her is lacking (humble).
2. Gwen is presented with a new environment, and despite feeling uncertain she moves forward with determination. So when she's taken to Neverland and is very uncertain, scared, worried, she still has determination.
3. Another move. More worrying about her mother. Uncertain about this new house. This scene shows Gwen in a new place yet not as foreign as Neverland.
4. Gwen needs to be settled. She needs a mother who is the one handling situations. Gwen needs answers to questions she keeps at bay.
5. Very descriptive and personal emotion touched on.

So what does this tell us?

Pick a scene that doesn't set the story too far back in backstory.
The scene could be the beginning of it all or a contrast to what happens next in the second scene.

Those aren't the only options. Here are some more from other books that I can think of off the top of my head:

A new environment.
The arrival of a startling element (character, setting, object).
A choice that dictates the rest of the character's story.
Loss of something or someone of importance to the main character.
An action that displaces the character out of her comfort zone.
World conspires against the character.

So how do you choose?
My best advice is to try out a few different scenes, all very different from one another. Review each scene for the five important elements. If one scene best displays those five elements, then go with that one.

Now, time to see if I can do just that!