I have the attention span of a small, sugar-crazed squirrel–at least when it comes to books. While I’ll try anything, my TBR pile is huge and my time is small.
When I worked at a bookstore and business was slow, I’d pause in organizing the shelves and pull random books out to flip open to their first pages. My only test was to see if it would keep my attention enough to get past page one.
Of course, if I got to page five or ten, then I’d have two other problems: a need to buy the book and a scolding from my boss. Then it was back to dusting!
This taught me one important thing: the opening pages are vital to catching audience attention. After all, that first scene, those first few paragraphs, are what agents, editors, and publishers ask for queries. They’re what potential customers seen when they open your book for the sneak peek on Kindle. It would stand to reason that, above all, those opening scenes are critical.
Then, I ran into a problem, one that got me kicked out of consideration at appointments, and made me throw out draft after draft. And it’s a problem I’ve seen since seen in the work of clients.
Last week’s blog post mentioned the framing block for all stories:
One reason I came up with this formula was due to drafting out story after story with all kinds of shiny world-building, unique characters, and clever dialogue, with scenes that worked–and with a plot that was fundamentally flawed because it had no focus and no meaningful purpose for existence.
I didn’t realize this was my issue until about 3-4 years ago, when a writing colleague whom I hadn’t spoken with a while read pages of my latest baby/short story and gave me a mercifully cutting comment – “what’s the point of this? Where is it going?”
Now, when I look at the work of potential submissions or of clients, I’m duly impressed by a shiny opening scene with all the bells and whistles and hooks. But the first question I ask them for is spoilers about the ending to make sure it lines up.
Don’t worry about your opening scene at first. Get your story in line, and then edit your opening scene to invite readers into that story world.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when organizing your story and opening scene:
- What’s the story problem? Do you meaningfully hint at the story problem in the opening scene/chapter, or does your story problem inexplicably change later on? (Thanks to plot bunnies!)
- How is your problem solved? Is the solution to your story’s problem at all hinted at in the opening scene/chapter? If not, try to do that. It can be really satisfying for readers.
- Is the protagonist you’re introducing in that opening scene the person who solves the problem? If not, they aren’t your protagonist. They’re just a fill-in who is getting a lot of page time.
It is important to make those opening pages shine. But it’s equally important to make sure you have a solid story so that when you get a request for the full manuscript (or a customer clicks to buy your whole book), they realize that those pages were only a taste of the true awesome your work has to offer.