How to Write Gripping Opening Scenes that Make Readers Care

Feb 7, 2011

Over at Brenda Drake's blog, she's holding a first line blogfest. The first line of Devolutionaries is "Grandad lied to me a lot."


Now, this wasn't always the first line. In fact, my whole first scene was completely different. It was actually a version of what's currently my second chapter. Originally, I started right in the middle of an exciting and pivotal moment of the story-- a big hook.

So why change it? Well, because it started immediately into the action. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn't work for my book. And I'm going to go out on a limb and say it doesn't work for a lot of books. Because we don't care what happens to people we don't know much about.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that you start with backstory. I actually did try that for a period with Devs, and it didn't work either. B-O-R-I-N-G. I eventually found a balance that introduced the character and relationships that were necessary for people to care about the big action, but still (hopefully) catches the reader's attention. Here's what I discovered can help:

Start with your character involved in some kind of defining action-- just not the inciting event.

You want something that will 1. draw a reader in, 2. help them start to care about the character, and 3. get the plot moving. But it doesn't have to be the inciting event. Devs starts with Ash, the MC, getting cheated. It's a conflict, it shows a bit of his personality (and even a bit of the world), and it helps readers identify with him-- we all know the anger and betrayal of someone trying to cheat us.

Now, of course where you start will depend entirely on your own story. In The Maze Runner, for example, the book DOES start with the inciting event: Thomas wakes up with no memory in an elevator. But this works, because we immediately have sympathy for someone who can't remember who they are. The main point I'm trying to make is that starting with ACTION without CHARACTER can do your story a disservice.

So take a look at your opening scene and sentence. How can you make your readers care more while still hooking them into your book?

And now for something completely different:

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28 comments:

Rane said...

Great points you've highlighted in this post, Shallee. I couldn't agree more. :-)

Margo Kelly said...

I like your first line! :)

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

"Because we don't care what happens to people we don't know much about."

I agree %100! Every writer seems to think hooks are the best things in the world, but I actually dislike them.

Janet Johnson said...

Great advice. It's a difficult balance, but worth the effort to get there. :)

Emy Shin said...

Great post, Shallee!

This reminds me of a post by agent Jill Corcoran that advises writers to start right before everything changes for the main characters. For readers to sympathize with the main character when things do change, they need to know and love the character.

I think you did a great job with this in DEVOLUTIONARIES (which I'm still reading and enjoying and promise to get back to you soon!). It can be difficult to juggle the right amount of backstory with action in the first chapter.

Kate Haggard said...

Agreed so hard. Not everything needs to start with a bang. Your first line illustrates how a nudge toward character is often a stronger way to go.

Melissa said...

Great post! It's hard to balance the perfect place to start a book. I agree that you need to care about the characters before getting to the inciting incident.

Misha said...

Great tips. I really have to look at my first paragraph.

Sigh. So much work.

:-)

The Golden Eagle said...

I agree--you don't need to start a novel with a BANG, as it were, since it doesn't really get the reader invested in the character; it's just another action scene.

I love your first line!

Ellie said...

Great advice and a lot for me to think about.

I was wondering what you thought about prologues. At the moment my horror novel starts with a prologue set 30 years earlier and is all action. In chapter one you meet the main character but in the way as advise above.

hopejunkie said...

Great advice! First line is great too. It's obvious you know what you're doing :)

Bethany Mattingly said...

Great points! I totally agree with you. Some action is great, but too much leaves me with soooo...what?

Karen Elizabeth Brown said...

It's interesting I should run into this today, as I've been juggling openings for a new story. I had read that you HAD to open the story right in the thick of things but this is a different idea and with good reasons. Thanks for sharing the good advice.

Melissa said...

Oh! I love this advice. I've been struggling with my opening (someone wanted me to eliminate all my setup - which wasn't very long) and this makes me feel stronger about the fact that I need to establish my character for a couple hundred words before I mess her world up!

The first line of devolutionaries kicks butt!

Melissa said...

Oh! I love this advice. I've been struggling with my opening (someone wanted me to eliminate all my setup - which wasn't very long) and this makes me feel stronger about the fact that I need to establish my character for a couple hundred words before I mess her world up!

The first line of devolutionaries kicks butt!

Cheree said...

I like your first line.

Jolene Perry said...

Great advice. For me, if I like the voice, it doesn't matter where the story starts :)

Amparo Ortiz said...

Epic. That's what this post is. :D

I agree 100% with you. Character + Action in the opening = Sold. You get to know character through what they do, along with through how they see their world (voice). Consider this bookmarked :)

Corinne O'Flynn said...

Excellent post - I have been rethinking my whole opening scene which used to be CH 5. Le sigh.

I like your first line... tension and lies already!

Good luck to you.
Corinne

erica m. chapman said...

Great post! I like your first line but I would change one thing... none of the words, just the structure.

"Grandad lied to me. A lot."

Packs a little more of a punch. Just my opinion ;o)

I would read on!

Nathalie said...

Loved the first line. Makes me think a huge revelation is about to take place. And kudos for the pointers on what makes a great first line.

Julie Musil said...

These are such great points. I don't necessarily care about a book that jumps too much into action right away. I think "action" can be an incident, but doesn't have to be car chases and explosions.

Abby Annis said...

It can be so difficult to find that perfect starting point, but so worth the extra effort when you do find it. Great post!

WritingNut said...

Great first line! And thanks so much for the helpful tips :)

nindogs said...

You're on the money once again, Shallee!

I've been avoiding the revisit to my first chapter. I'll have to bookmark this for when I eventually come to it. (:

Also, I'm doing this to you again, with another blog award: http://nindogs.blogspot.com/2011/02/versatile-blogger-award.html

M Pax said...

My CP's complain I don't feed them enough facts for grounding in the first paragraph. It's something I have to work on.

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hosted BES said...

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