Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tips on How to Create Your Novel's Opening Scene

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by C. Patrick Schulze

To listen to a podcast of this article, click HERE.

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We all know readers must be spellbound by the very first scene of a novel. In fact, so say industry sages, the first paragraph can lose your reader. (That’s true, by the way. I’ve done it.) Further, an author should spend more time on their first line than any other in the entire work. Wow! That’s a lot of pressure.

So, just how might one go about creating that initial burst of excitement?

There are any number of options open to us as authors, but here’s your list of a dozen that, if crafted well, should offer your reader a scene to keep them wanting more.

1. Open with the proverbial, “Great Line.” I know, it’s not as simple to do as one might think. To develop this ever-elusive Great Line, compress your novel’s major conflict into a single sentence, then polish. Here’s one of my favorite. “When I was little, I would think of ways to kill my daddy.” How’s that for grabbing the imagination. (Interesting, don’t you think, how I fail to remember the book or the author, but not that line? Maybe it’s because I have children?)

2. Have the bad guy show up early and in a big way. Your opening might start something like, “The assassins bullet…”

3. Begin your scene with the likeable hero. If you do this, it’s a good idea to include his worthy goal, too. Think along the line of, “She understood early her son’s endearing smile was due more to a weak mind than a sense of humor. Motherhood would be a joy and a challenge.”

4. Introduce humor in the opening paragraph, but insure it fits your audience. Toilet humor might work with the preteen genres, but the church elders will probably, uh, “pass.”

5. Incorporate a feeling of danger right away. “He saw men on horseback, riding hard, their mounts kicking up a swirl behind them.”

6. Write a scene that’s easy on the senses. Make it natural but lyrical. Paint a picture with which your audience will identify. “The landscape looked as if an artist had brushed his fondest vision of nature on the canvas.”

7. Introduce an ominous foreshadowing. “Carrion birds floated in a languid circle off to the south. Something was about to die.” Those, by the way, are the opening lines of my emerging novel, Born to be Brothers.

8. Begin with formidable obstacles your hero must face and overcome. “Tired, bloodied and winded, the soldier crested the hill only to find the enemy dug in on yet another ridge to his front.” Of course these need not be physical barriers, but you get the idea.

9. Use immediate action. Explosions are always exciting, though somewhat overdone these days. It can be an argument, a personal conflict or facing humility. Just make is pop right away.

10. Open with a high level of tension. Use a heavy dose of emotion mixed with high drama. Think of the last argument you had before you demanded a divorce. That’ll get ‘em worked up.

11. A representation of an appealing setting might work for you. Consider your “safe place” in all its glory and invite your reader to join you.

12. You might try an effective joining of humor and tension. “When the bullet ripped into his flesh, he knew the day was not going well.”

So there ya go. A dozen easy openings to hook your reader and sell more books. Good luck.

I hope you know by now I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”


  1. I followed a link from the Writer Unboxed site to your site. It looks like you have some great content here so I am going to have to become a follower so I can come back here and check some of your info-packed posts. I used to live in Richmond and, noting you are a civil buff, my family line is descended from the same one that included Stonewall Jackson--I guess I would be a distant cousin several times removed.

  2. By the way, the post that led me here was using your blog as an example of Poor leading (too little space between lines). Just a quick look over recent and past postings, I'm not sure what she is referring to-- your site is what I like to see in a site-- basic, unclutterd, and well organized. Looks great!
    Tossing It Out

  3. Say, Arlee,

    Thanks for following and I also appreciate you letting me know a negative comment led you to me.

    I reviewed her comment and studied other sites with her thoughts in mind. I see her point and will give it a bit of study.

    The problem? I have no idea, at time time, how to fix it without increasing font size too large. I'll figure it out or die trying.

    Thanks for again for everything, Arlee.

    BTW, ANY relation to ol' Stonewall is a friend of mine.


  4. personally, I don't see the problem that she is talking about. Your posts seem very readable to me and there is no clutter like I see on so many other sites. Everything is organized. Yours is a site about writing and that's what you are presenting just like one might see on the page of a book. I don't know if I would change much more.

  5. Thanks, Lee. I'll play with it a bit and see if anything comes up.

    Regardless, all exposure is valuable, even that of a negative nature. After all, it connected us!