In The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, writer and former literary agent Noah Lukeman claims that the amount of time you have to grab your reader's attention — including that of an agent or editor — is, you guessed it, five pages. Lukeman may've been a bit generous in this; other testimonies I've heard put the number closer to one page. Or half of one.
Whatever the actual number, and no matter how intimidating it ends up being, the message is undeniable: Your story has to start with a strong opening scene. And despite the fact that all of us will be writing very different novels, on varied subjects and in divergent styles, there are a number of components that all good opening scenes have in common.
A good opening scene has four key components.
1. It has a compelling hook.
A hook is an opening line that entices the reader into your story by (1) beginning in a clear moment of action or interaction and (2) serving as a tease, revealing just enough information to ground the reader in the moment while maintaining enough mystery — through the careful omission of certain information — to keep her reading.
By moment of action, I don't mean that you begin with a bomb ticking, or someone running for his life, or a massive explosion. Rather it means that you avoid synopsis, stage direction, and backstory by dropping us directly into a scene in progress so that we're in the midst of the action, or in medias res. (Such a direct opening can be particularly difficult for the meticulous writer, who's thought so much about her protagonist and his backstory that she's not really sure where to begin.)
Likewise, the tease of a compelling hook is not about intentionally hiding things from the reader, making it difficult for her to figure out what's going on. Inexperienced writers often confuse abstraction for mystery, and they'll believe that an interesting opening scene is one where the reader has no clue what's going on and has to figure it out for himself, as when the reader is dropped into the middle of a dream, or a drug trip, or a riot, or the ocean, or whatever. ("What was that? Who's talki — wait, something was touching her now — Is that a voice she heard? Who's talking? And what was touching her on the leg? And is that a white glowing mist in the distance — ?") The result, as you can see, is less one of mystery than frustration, which is obviously not what you want your reader to experience — on page one or anywhere else.
So let's consider what we do mean by a compelling hook. Let's say your opening scene takes place in a dentist's office, with your protagonist going in for a root canal. Probably your first inclination would be to begin with some straight-up information getting the character there: "Barbara Morris walked into the dentist's office and up to the receptionist's window to sign in for her root canal." But while that's very informative, it's also a bit of a bore. How, then, might we convey the same basic information — we're in a dentist's office for a procedure — that begins in the action of the moment and also holds enough mystery to convince the reader to keep going?
Maybe something like this: "Barbara Morris breathed in the hissing gas and immediately felt her face sliding off her skull."
At the baseline, this conveys the same basic information as the previous first line we tried. But it puts us in the moment, with the reader feeling as if he has that little hissing mask on his face, too, already an improvement over the first. Plus, in the first line we tried out, there's very little mystery involved; we know what's likely to come next (the character is going to speak to the receptionist). But in the second one, we get the feeling that anything might still happen: Barbara Morris might panic and try to take the mask off; she might accidentally reveal her darkest secret while loopy on gas; she might look at those two hairy dentist's hands coming toward her and suddenly realize she's in love. We don't know what'll happen next, but hopefully we're intrigued enough to read to the next line to find out.
And all of this is accomplished by starting with something fairly general (going to the dentist), considering what exact moment there we might focus on to begin, and finding a first line that conveys the moment in an interesting way and makes us, as authors, want to write the next line.
2. Grounds us in the protagonist's perspective.
It's good to begin in a moment of action or interaction, something to grab the reader's attention right away, but it's important to remember that your reader experiences your fictional world as your protagonist does. Thus a good opening scene is one that grounds us in the main character's perspective, shows us the world through his eyes, from the very beginning.
Immediate action that's not grounded in character is just Stuff Happening and can be disorienting for a reader. As an editor and teacher I see this quite a bit: stories that begin with a gun battle, for instance, with characters barking out orders and bullets flying and lots of Stuff Happening — high action, the author thinks, this'll hook a reader — but that offers no way for the reader to know whom to root for, whom to run from, what's important and what's just chaos. And our reaction to such a scene at the beginning of a novel is much the same as if we'd been dropped into a gun battle in real life: Get me outta here.
This is the double burden of a solid opening: introduce the character and get us into his head and heart while simultaneously engaging us in action. But when you find that opening that does both of these things well, the chances are good that your reader — not to mention your potential editor and publisher — will be drawn into the story and will feel compelled to keep going.
3. Has a complete arc of its own but also urges us toward the next.
Your opening scene has an arc of its own: We have our protagonist, who we understand has a clear internal motivation because we're grounded in the protagonist's perspective; we have a conflict, which comes up against the character's motivation or want; and finally we have a resolution that's satisfying by the scene's end — though the way the arc plays out should raise a number of related questions that keep us reading, to see how those questions or problems play out.
It's tempting to think of your opening scene as an introduction, something that's slyly moving pieces into place that'll become revelatory later, and in a sense this is what an opening scene does (as we'll discuss in just a moment). But your first scene can't merely be a scene that delays, that promises something more important coming later on if you'll just keep reading; we need to see stakes right away. Making sure your scene has a complete arc is one way you assure the reader has a sense of something at stake immediately, even if what's at risk in this first scene is relatively minor in relation to what's coming up (as you get to the first act's Inciting Incident and Plot Point 1 that leads us to the second act, both of which raise the overall stakes even more).
But while the arc we see play out in the opening scene must be, in relation to what's coming up, minor, your opening scene can't simply be a throwaway scene, just a quick conflict for conflict's sake; in fact, this first minor arc and how it plays out will resonate throughout the rest of your book. And that's because a good opening scene . . .
4. Contains or suggests the end of your novel.
What's that? We have to start thinking about the end so soon? Actually, yes. There are really two closely related arcs launched at the beginning of your novel: one that plays out and resolves itself by the end of the opening scene (the external motivation and conflict of the particular moment), and one that plays out over the course of the book (the character's internal motivation and conflict: what's revealed about what he wants in the longer run). Thus, an important consideration in crafting your opening scene is to begin thinking about and crafting the end of your novel, planning for how you believe the story will resolve, and then making sure that whatever ending or resolution you have in mind is established in the beginning.
Think back, for example, to the overall arc of [the movie version of] The Wizard of Oz. We begin and end that story in the same place, Kansas — I defy you not see it in black-and-white — though the scenes we have in the beginning and end are poles apart from each other, showing the far ends of Dorothy's arc. In the beginning we see Dorothy feeling unwanted and unsure she belongs, wishing she were someplace else; at the end, we see her knowing that this is home, the place she belongs. That ending scene is the completion of what we see of Dorothy's arc from the very first scene. In the beginning of that story is the end.