Posted On March 23, 2016 by Print This Post

Writing Novel-Opening Scenes by Rayne Hall

oldbook_THEMERU Contributor Rayne Hall returns with advice on a key element of every story, the opening scene. 

You’ve written a novel and are revising it. Is the opening scene as grabbing is the story deserves? Or perhaps you have an idea for a novel and wonder where to start.

Here are some pointers. They are suggestions, not rules, and it’s up to you to choose what works best for your book.

START CLOSE TO THE ACTION

Inviting readers to your story is like having guests for dinner. Once they’ve arrived, don’t keep them waiting. The pie should already be baking in the oven, filling the room with enticing smells. You may welcome your guests with a drink and small talk, but then it’s time to serve the meal. Don’t go to the kitchen to start cooking now.

From the first page, readers need to sense that something exciting is about to happen. Don’t keep them waiting for long.

HOOK THE READERS

Place at least one ‘hook’ in the first five sentences, something to grab your readers’ interest so they simply have to read on. Different hooks work for different readers. Choose hooks which entice readers of your genre. The mere mention of a bachelor with a rakish reputation may get Regency Romance readers excited, but it won’t arouse fans of Police Procedural Thrillers.

STATE THE GOAL

The main character wants something. What is it? State it as early and clearly as possible. Readers root for characters who have a goal.

FOUR TYPES OF BEGINNINGS

  1. Dialogue

When you start the novel with dialogue, the story feels vivid from the start. This is also a great way to introduce characters and conflicts.

Stick to two characters, because more speakers would confuse the reader who hasn’t met these people before. Make it clear who is saying what. Avoid info-dumping dialogue where speakers explain to one another things they already know.

  1. Setting

Opening with the setting allows you to set the mood for the scene and the whole book – tense, creepy, humorous. It also conveys the scene’s location, the season and the time of the day, as well as the Point-of-View character’s state of mind.

Avoid lengthy setting descriptions without character or action. Put the character into the setting, let him or her move in or interact with it. If you’re writing deep Point-of-View, show the setting from the PoV character’s perspective. Use several senses – not just vision, but sound and smell, and perhaps touch and temperature.

  1. Action

This opening as exciting, and it promises the readers that they’re in for a thrilling ride. The characters chase a fugitive, hoist a sail, rehearse a show, escape from prison, build a wall, wrestle a villain, forge a sword or do something else relevant to the plot.

To tap into this excitement, the readers need to know why the character is fighting, working, chasing, fleeing, otherwise they have no emotional investment. If several characters are involved, focus on just two of them, otherwise the readers get confused.

  1. Exposition

Telling the reader who the characters are, explaining their background and current situation, and giving an overview of the social conditions was an acceptable way to start a novel in the 19th century. Authors could devote several pages to explanations before allowing the story took off.

Most modern readers don’t have the patience for this. They want to read a story, not explanations. Unless you’re consciously imitating 19th century style – perhaps for a parody – I suggest you avoid this approach.

 

NINE OVER-USED NOVEL STARTS

Most novels by novice authors start with one of the same nine beginnings.

Although these starts are not wrong, they are unlikely to get your novel selected for publication. Put yourself in the mind of an agent or editor reading submissions. If she’s seen the same opening twelve times already that day, yours won’t grab her interest.

It’s OK if your draft begins with one of these openings, because they’re a useful exercise for the writer to transition into the story, but you may want to change it before you submit the manuscript for publication.

  1. Getting out of Bed

The character wakes in the morning, gets up, brushes teeth, dresses and packs while thinking about the day ahead.

  1. The Disoriented Wake-up

The character wakes up wondering where he is and how he got there.

  1. The Journey

The character walks (or drives, rides, sails, flies) to the destination. On the way he reflects on his life history and on the social conditions and politics of the place.

  1. The Captain Hears Alarm

The captain/sergeant/team leader of a police/military/paramilitary/medical/other unit is engaging in a peaceful activity (typically having a drink with his comrades) when suddenly the alarm bell rings/the siren howls/the red light flashes. In the resulting scramble, he rallies his team to deal with the emergency.

  1. The Wardrobe

Standing in front of her wardrobe, the character considers what to wear for an upcoming event.

  1. The Mirror

The character sits in front of the mirror, beautifying herself for the event and contemplating her looks.

  1. Waiting in a Bar

The character sits in a bar (sometimes in a coffee shop, restaurant, hotel lobby or pub) waiting for someone (usually a stranger) whom he is supposed to meet here. The person is late.

  1. The Writer Writes

The novelist sits at her computer, thinking about a story she is going to write.

  1. The Window Gaze

The character gazes out of the window, reflecting upon her present, past and future.

 

FOUR MISTAKES TO AVOID

Besides starting too far away from the action or using over-used beginnings, many novice writers make one of these mistakes which put readers off.

  1. Four-Letter Words

In a desperate bid for attention, many new writers start with with a swearword: “Damn!” “Hell!” “Fuck!” This method worked to shock readers (and editors) to attention 100 years ago. Today’s readers are just bored.

  1. Confusing the Reader

Trying to intrigue the reader, new writers often write nebulous openings. But instead of growing curious, the reader who doesn’t understand what’s going on simply puts the book or manuscript down and reads something else.

  1. Haha – I Got You

Another desperate ploy to get attention is the fake opening. The author presents the character in an exciting situation – and at the end of the scene, this is revealed to have been merely a dream/a computer game/a simulation exercise.

  1. Flashbacks

Many inexperienced writers flash back to what happened before the story’s beginning, on the first page. This is not a good idea, because the reader doesn’t yet care about the characters’ past. Postpone major flashbacks until later scenes when the reader has become interested in this person. If a flashback is necessary in the first scene, keep it as short as possible.

How does your current work-in-progress begin? Are you happy with the start, or are you going to change it after reading this post? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

***

Writing Vivid Dialogue

WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE 

Do you want to write fast-paced, exciting, sizzling dialogue? This book reveals professional dialogue technique to characterise the speaker, carry the plot forward and entertain your readers.
This is not a beginner’s guide. It assumes that you have mastered the basics of fiction writing, and don’t need an explanation of what dialogue is and why it matters for your story. But your dialogue isn’t yet as strong as your story deserves. Perhaps it drags, perhaps the characters all sound the same, and perhaps it lacks tension, wit or sparkle.
I’ll offer you a toolbox filled with techniques. These are not ‘rules’ every writer must follow, but tricks you can try. Pick, mix and match them to suit your characters and your story.

***

Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in RayneHall – Fantasy Horror Author – reduced size Portrait by Fawnheartseveral genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and more) and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.

She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.

Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian on Sulu Vivid Settingsthe south coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.

To learn more about Rayne, visit her website or follow her on Twitter where she posts advice for writers, funny cartoons and cute pictures of her cat.

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Discussion

36 Responses to “Writing Novel-Opening Scenes by Rayne Hall”

  1. Hi Rayne,

    Good info. A character rising out of bed isn’t a riveting start to a story unless there’s a dead body on the other side of the bed.

    Number 7 Waiting in Bar still applies if the character is waiting at Starbucks, right?

    The use of flashbacks, like prologues, is hotly debated. I like both, but I haven’t given much thought to the placement of the flashback. Great point about postponing the flashback until the reader has a chance to develop a relationship with the character.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | March 23, 2016, 2:59 pm
    • Hi Jennifer,

      Yep, waiting at Starbucks for the contact or stranger who doesn’t turn up is the same as waiting in a bar. In mysteries and thrillers, the contact/stranger has made an appointment with the MC because he has important secret evidence to share. His body usually gets found in Scene 2.

      Flashbacks can be fine, and indeed an important part of the plot, but are best postponed until the reader has come to care about the character and the current story.

      How not to start a novel:
      “Mary sank to the ground, exhausted. Taking deep breaths to steady herself, she thought back to how it had all started. Two years ago…” 🙂

      Posted by Rayne Hall | March 23, 2016, 4:43 pm
  2. I was going to start my current WiP with a flashback, but I don’t like flashbacks. I started the story where the first flashback would have started and am just going forward. The gaps in time are a little grueling and rough yet, but I think it’ll read better this way.

    Starting the story with the setting is what I prefer. True, keeping it short is best and having action follow.

    Posted by Glynis Jolly | March 24, 2016, 9:02 am
    • Hi Glynis,

      You can always write a first draft starting with a flashback, just so you get a feel for the story. Then when the first draft is completed, you’ll see where the story is really meant to start, and can rewrite the beginning.

      I love novels beginning with the setting (I’m a sucker for setting and atmosphere), and as you say, it’s best to keep the introductory setting descriptions short and let the action happen soon. I like to put the point-of-view character into the setting from the start. This way, I can segue smoothly from setting to action.

      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall | March 24, 2016, 4:48 pm
  3. Great post, Rayne!

    In my current WIP, the heroine takes her nephew to adopt a puppy and meets the hero who is selling the puppies at his farm. She’s actually scared of dogs but wants to do this to help her nephew.

    I hope there’s enough action and that it’s swoon worthy.

    Have a great day!

    Posted by Jackie Layton | March 24, 2016, 10:18 am
    • Going to adopt a puppy? Aaww! That’s going to hook all dog lovers right away. And introducing her fear of dogs early on is great. Will this fear play a role in the novel later? Maybe she’ll need to confront this fear in the novel’s climax scene?

      Just make sure that you begin close enough to the action… not with heroine and nephew walking/driving to the farm while they tell one another everything you want the reader to know. 🙂

      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall | March 24, 2016, 4:54 pm
  4. Good article. Meeting in a bar, that’s different, right? My first book starts out with two characters, one an agent and one a confidential informant, having a little meeting in a pizza pub. They’re both there from go, no one has to wait for anyone.

    I’d like to point out that many of the posts here, this one included have great shareable content but they can’t be easily shared to Pinterest, one of the biggest sharing sites around. There are no pinnable graphics in many of these posts to anchor a pin. For instance, the first graphic Pinterest finds for this one is the book recommendation after the main post. After that, it defaults to sidebar graphics. Pinterest usually ignores headers altogether and, in this case, it also ignores the typewriter graphic at the top of the post. You might want to look into making these posts a bit more Pinterest friendly…my two cents.

    Posted by Anne Hagan | March 24, 2016, 1:55 pm
    • Hi Anne,
      Two characters meeting in a bar is nowhere as overused as one character waiting for someone who doesn’t arrive.
      If possible, make the bar an unusual/quirky one, so the location stands out.
      Good point about the Pinterest issue. I tried to pin some of my post and found it didn’t work, though I didn’t give it further thought, I just thought it couldn’t be done.
      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall | March 24, 2016, 4:57 pm
  5. I think this is dead on. And action with dialogue seem to hook readers best. It’s really importatnt to avoid the temptation to load back story into the opening. Trust the readers. The characters and action hook them, they already have the back story from the jacket info (or Amazon description). One, two sentences at the most.

    Posted by Phillip T. Stephens | March 24, 2016, 10:29 pm
    • Action with dialogue is a great start for many novels; others work better with a setting start, or a different combination. It’s a matter of choosing what’s best for your particular story.

      A few years ago at a writers conference, a speaker earnestly declared that no novel must ever start with dialogue. He declared that this was a rule all writers had to follow. According to him, all editors and all agents rejected all novel manuscripts starting with dialogue.

      Many people in the audience eagerly wrote down this rule, and I don’t doubt that obeyed it. I wonder if any of them got anywhere with their fiction.

      In the meantime, bestselling authors continued to ignore this ‘rule’ and to start novels with dialogue. 🙂

      Posted by Rayne Hall | March 25, 2016, 2:24 pm
      • I’m writing an Intergalactic Culinaryt thriller serial, and the first 260 chapters is a diary. I write under my pen name Mellissa Green. I love stories that start off with dialogue. But my opening starts with the boy in his underground room. His chanins keep him chained up. It’s a Native-American family. Novel Pitch A gender-shifting child terrorist wants Intergalactic domination. The character in the novel’s opeing becomes one of the terrorist’s victims. How about a post on having a diary as part of the novel? My novel will be multi-pov, but only the protagonist’s Tybron’s diary is featured until he stops recording entries.

        Posted by Mellissa Green | April 7, 2016, 7:45 pm
  6. It’s often a challenge to find the right starting point, so your advice is quite practical and useful.

    I usually accept that the book will wind up starting someplace different once it’s finished.

    Posted by Carole Ann Moleti | March 25, 2016, 5:50 pm
  7. Hi Carol,
    That’s what I do too. I start writing the novel in whatever place allows the story to unfold in my mind. Later, I choose the best place to unfold the story in the reader’s mind.
    Rayne

    Posted by Rayne Hall | March 26, 2016, 5:18 am
  8. My WIP starts with my protagonist’s best friend demanding to know why she hadn’t previously revealed a juicy secret that was just printed in the local newspaper.

    Posted by Pamela Love | March 27, 2016, 1:47 pm
  9. Ah, dialogue! Sounds good. I’m sure this will make the reader curious! Does the protagonist tell her friend the real reason, or does she give a not-quite-false-not-quite-true answer?

    Posted by Rayne Hall | March 27, 2016, 3:18 pm
  10. The opening of my novels are always the hardest for me. I almost always begin it with a dialogue because to me, that always grabs my attention when I’m reading a book. Unfortunately some of the clients I write for don’t see it that way and want it all description of the scene. I agree with the over-used novel starters you listed, I tend to not use them at all, unless there’s no way around it.

    Posted by Christine Antosca | August 23, 2016, 1:49 pm
    • I agree with you Christine. I use dialog to start with most of the time too. It grabs me when I’m reading rather than writing as well. Starting with description, rather than working it in as a scene goes along can be boring. A lot of editors won’t get past the first couple of paragraphs. You always want to pull your reader right into the action.

      Posted by Anne Hagan | August 23, 2016, 2:12 pm
      • Hi Anne,

        Yes, starting a novel with a couple of paragraphs of pure description can be boring. But it doesn’t have to be.

        If you write it from the point-of-view character’s perspective, it becomes an experience for the reader.

        It all depends on how well the writer handles it. I’ve certainly seen many unpublished fiction manuscripts with static description openings, and I fear those will remain published.

        Rayne

        Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 3:24 am
    • Hi Christine,

      Starting with either dialogue or description can work as a novel opening, as long as you do it well.

      If your clients want you to open with description, then you need to give the clients what they want… at the same time giving the readers what they want, which is an opening that pulls them right into the story.

      The trick is using deep point of view. Write the description the way the PoV character experiences it. This way, the opening description is part of the story.

      Also, inject movement into the description, preferably the PoV characters’ movement. For example, instead of a static description of garden, the character walks along the garden path. This immediately injects life into the opening.

      I hope these suggestions help.

      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 3:18 am
  11. I love starting the story with a dialogue too. But as Rayne mentioned, it can be the most important and hard-to-create dialogue of the story, because the readers have no idea what is going on, who’s talking, where, why etc.
    It should be done very carefully, considering each detail to a word.
    Setting starts can be attention catching too if they are skillfully described. No needless info.
    When I use dialogue as a start, I like to make the very first sentence interrogative.
    I think it makes the dialogue more interesting.

    Posted by Lilit Galatea | August 24, 2016, 3:50 pm
  12. I agree, you have two paragraphs to draw the reader into your story, half a page if your lucky. What about opening with the main character looking for her cat, who has run away? Seems like that would grab the animal lovers (as well as creepazoids who like to see people suffer).

    Posted by Aimee Mandala | August 24, 2016, 6:26 pm
    • Depending on the genre and the intended readership, this opening could work very well. It combines setting and action.
      It can establish the character as someone who is caring and who loves her cat, and for animal lovers, this means she’s someone they want to read about.

      However, after three paragraphs you’ll have to introduce another element: either an element of danger ( for eample, a sign that the cat may be injured, or sounds indicating that someone is secretly following the character). Or a second human character who says something that establishes a conflict.

      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 3:31 am
  13. I have been guilty of a lot of the “over used starts” mentioned in this post! I used to use the mirror scene a lot coz it’s so easy to describe the character while she looks herself over.

    One of my WIP starts with a ascetic waking up from a 8 month long meditation. He finds himself face to face with a bear when he struggles out of the cave and goes on to have a conversation with it. Does this make it better? Or should I avoid the waking up start?

    Posted by aditya thakur | August 29, 2016, 2:39 am
  14. Thank you so much for this article, as this is something I have been struggling with; trying to write the perfect opening paragraph that will captivate my readers from the very start. So far, I was heading in the direction of drawing things out or starting to cook after the arrival of the dinner guests, as you so cleverly put it. I was afraid of giving away too much information too soon, but this has definitely given me a new perspective. Putting myself in the reader’s shoes, I would like to at least have an idea of where the story is headed. Great points Rayne!

    Posted by Shenae Richards | September 1, 2016, 8:59 pm
    • Yes, definitely give the reader an idea where the story is headed. Actually, I would recommend to take it further: set the story in motion, let the readers feel they’re on a train that’s already travelling somewhere, not in a railway station waiting for it to get moving.

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | November 11, 2016, 8:01 am
  15. I have always battled to create interest at the begging of my stories. Do you feel like introducing the readers to too many characters in the begging is a bad idea? How many characters do you believe will keep the interest in your story and not scare your readers away?

    Posted by ashlee | September 3, 2016, 6:28 am

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  1. […] of the plot. Martina Boone examines finding the perfect place to start your story, Rayne Hall shows how to write novel-opening scenes, and K.M. Weiland gives us the only reason you should ever choose a […]

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