Readers may not judge a book by its cover, but they will judge it by its opening scene.
An opening scene has but one job—to establish the story and convince readers to read the next scene. That’s a lot to ask of a single scene, but it’s not as difficult as it sounds. Readers aren’t expecting the entire book in that opening, just enough to capture their attention and let them know the story is going to worth their time.
Here are three things you can do to ensure those readers stick around.
No matter what kind of book it is, there’s a story question that needs to be answered by the end. In a romance, it’s “How will these two people fall in love?”. In a mystery, it’s “Whodunnit?” Thrillers make you wonder “How will the heroes save the day?”
If a reader got as far as reading the opening scene, the general question of the genre or story type already intrigues them, so all you need to do is capitalize on that. Why should a reader want to see your couple fall in love? What makes this mystery a better read than someone else’s? What’s going to thrill in this thriller? Essentially, “Where is this story going?”
Many opening scenes that fail to grab readers don’t offer a question to suggest where the plot is going to go. They explain the situation, describe the characters, dump a lot of backstory, or show them existing in their world without anything really going on.
No questions. Nothing to wonder about. No sense of a plot or story unfolding.
A strong opening scene creates an interesting situation where something is left unanswered. It lets readers know the plot is moving forward and there’s something to pursue. They want to know what comes next, because you’ve clearly shown that there is indeed a “next,” and so far, it looks pretty cool.
A good example here is Jay Asher’s, 13 Reasons Why. A box of cassette tapes is delivered to Clay. On the first tape is Hannah, a girl at school (and Clay’s crush) who just killed herself. She says the reason why is on the tapes, and if you’re listening, you’re one of the reasons.
“Why did Hannah kill herself?” makes readers want to know, same as the boy who received the tapes. You know the story will answer that, and other questions as well.
Show readers the story is going somewhere, and that it’ll be worth their time to find out where.
2. Catch Readers Off Guard with Something Unexpected
I’ve bought books based on an unusual opening line or page alone, so don’t underestimate the power of the unexpected.
Defying expectations from the start lets readers know this won’t be the same old story they’ve read before (even if they love those stories). This one offers something new, a different view or angle, or even a fresh twist to a classic plot.
Things unexpected also suggests that the book will be full of surprises to keep readers guessing, and have a plot that isn’t predictable. They’ll pay more attention to what’s happening in every scene, because they’ll never know what twist or unusual detail might come next.
Even unexpected language or turns of phrase can catch a reader’s attention. Unusual pairings of words, an odd comment made at the right time, a wry way of viewing the world can all create a sense that this story isn’t relying on clichés or tropes, but offers a unique voice and perspective.
A fun example here is Susan Elizabeth Phillip’s Natural Born Charmer. It opens with a woman in a beaver costume on the side of the road, and the man who stops to see if she needs help. “You got a gun?” the woman asks. “Not with me.” “Then I got no use for you.”
It’s quirky, it’s unexpected, and it makes you want to know exactly how this situation came to be. But it also lets you know that this is a romance that won’t be boring.
Predictable is boring, so piquing curiosity right from the start promises readers this novel will surprise them.
3. Give Readers a Reason to Care
Not caring is a major reason for putting down a book, and it’s easy to lose readers in an opening scene. They haven’t read enough of the book yet to know why these characters are wonderful, or why this problem is fascinating, or how this puzzle is a brain bender.
All they know, is they read a bunch of “stuff” they didn’t give a hoot about.
Which is both harsh and hard, I know. This is the aspect most difficult for writers to pull off, because it’s ambiguous what “a reason to care” is. Every reader is different, and what appeals to one won’t to another.
In most cases, showing a character with likable or compelling traits makes them care. We like nice people, or people in situations we know are hard, or those in trouble we can relate to.
Maybe show the protagonist caring about or helping others, or have them display a likable trait, such as a clever wit or self-deprecating manner. Make readers laugh and you can hook them every time.
If the character isn’t likable (and not every protagonist is), show what makes them fascinating, or fearsome, or downright creepy.
It doesn’t matter what readers care about, as long as something in the opening scene makes them decide this book is worth reading.
In Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You, the story opens with the recently divorced Nina at the pound looking for a puppy. What she finds, is Fred, an old, morose basset hound on his final day. He’s the last thing she needs, but she can’t leave him to die, so she adopts and brings him home.
Saving a depressed dog on his last day is enough to make anyone likable, but Nina’s wit and charm and her instant love for Fred make her a character to root for.
Once readers make an emotional investment in the story, they’ll stay to see how it turns out.
How you open that novel determines whether or not your reader keeps reading. Any one of these can hook a reader and pull them into the book, but if you can do all three, you’ll increase your odds of hitting opening scene jackpot.
What are some of your favorite openings? What about them grabbed you?
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.
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