Anatomy of a Scene: The Opening Scenes


As a writer and editor, Susan is all too familiar with both sides of the publishing world. Since 2009, Susan Brooks has served on the board of directors for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, a nonprofit educational organization supporting both published and aspiring writers of commercial fiction. She holds a masters degree in publishing from George Washington University and is Editor in Chief at Literary Wanderlust, a small traditional press located in Denver,  Colorado.

Susan is an editor with many years of experience and occasionally takes on freelance projects. Recent editorial projects include The Homeplace by Kevin Wolf, and The Rampart Guards: Chronicle One in the Adventures of Jason Lex, by Wendy Terrien.

She tweets once in a while and you can follow her as @oosuzieq on Twitter.

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The Opening Scene

We’ve been talking about writing in scenes as a way for authors to complete their novels, and as a way to ensure that every page of our book is compelling and moves the story forward all the way to the end. Our goal is that we would stop wasting our valuable writing time working on pages that are dull or stray from the story line which later ends up being deleted. We want to make every writing minute count.

This week we are going to focus on The Opening Scene.

“The opening scene should open with a hit of a riddle.”

The opening scene is the first scene in your novel and it is the most important scene you will write. If the scene is boring, or confusing, there is a good chance that your reader will put your book down and not buy it. That’s bad. So we need to be sure that the opening scene contains all the elements necessary to make the reader turn the page. Note that the opening scene is not the prologue.

The opening scene serves a few purposes and contains the following:

• It contains the hook. The hook is the reason your reader will read the book because they want to know what happens next
• It implies the story question
• It brings your reader immediately into your story world
• It establishes the setting
• It hints at the overall plot
• It introduces your protagonist and allows the reader a glimpse of their struggles (both interior and exterior)
• It sets up the conflict
• It sets up the pace

The opening scene should open with a hit of a riddle. This riddle is the story question that will be answered by the end of the book, and it is this riddle that will intrigue your reader. There needs to be enough information, enough action, and enough plot information to hook the reader without being overbearing with detail and minutia.

Your inciting incident does not necessarily need to be in your opening scene, but it should be pretty darn close to it. It should definitely be in Act I if you are following a 3 Act Structure or a 4 Act Structure, or it is the catalyst event if you are using a beat sheet. If your inciting incident is not located so early in your story, then I recommend you revise your plot. Note that the inciting incident is the event which begins the story problem that your character must solve by the end of the book. Think about the last movie you watched. What was the thing that made your characters jump into action? That is the inciting incident.

Your main character and your overall plot are intertwined. Plot and character CANNOT be disconnected. Your plot pushes your character, and your character reveals the plot. You must have these two elements in the opening scene, and throughout your book.

The ending to your opening scene (remember that all scenes have a beginning, a middle, and an ending) should leave your reader dangling with tension, crisis, dilemma, or conflict. Leave the significant situation unresolved so that your reader has to find out what happened.