The lights go out. A hush breathes through the audience. The curtain rises. There is never a moment so pregnant with anticipation as the opening scene of a play. The audience, primed and ready, wants to believe and if given the opportunity willingly immerses itself for the story’s duration. Only if the performance falters will the audience boo, hiss, and may well leave the theater.
A wise writer understands that a novel is no different with respect to its opening scene. The reader is already pulling for the story. However, if the execution fails to muster up to expectations the reader may lose interest, disengage, and abandon the story.
Your opening scene has to work hard. I’ll illustrate with the first scene of Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I recommend that you read it and/or watch it online, and then go on with this post.
Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: Your Opening Scene
Your opening scene has to work hard to hook a reader and initiate the story. It functions to:
- Introduce your main character. Since we experience books vicariously, your readers want to identify right away with the main character of your story, so it’s best to begin by introducing that person. Scarlett’s introduction in Gone With The Wind makes it clear that as a beautiful girl, she is pampered, privileged, and willful.
- Reveal the main theme. Clue your readers into what the story will be about early on. This helps them prepare to tackle your theme as they read. If you hint at one type of story but partway through turn it into another, for your reader it can be as disconcerting as getting ready to take a bite of pumpkin pie and tasting a dill pickle instead. Gone With The Wind establishes its theme of surviving loss with Scarlett’s reaction to Ashley’s engagement to Melanie. In many ways, Ashley Wilkes is allegorical for the Old South. Scarlett longs for him, but he is lost to her forever. It is Rhett Butler, symbolizing survival in a brave new world, that Scarlett really needs.
- Initiate the story problem. What does your main character want more than anything and what is it that interferes with attaining that desire? This is the problem that must be resolved by your main character. The story problem in Gone With The Wind becomes apparent from Scarlett’s reaction when the Tarleton twins tell her that Ashley Wilkes is engaged to his cousin, Melanie. The driving question for the reader is how will Scarlett find happiness when the man of her dreams rejects her love?
- Set the tone of your story. Extract the mood of your story from its main theme and bring your readers in with sensory details. The movie version of Gone With The Wind opens with captions that effectively establish a mood of deep reflection over a world lost forever, reflecting its piercing main theme.
- Initiate conflict. Set the stakes so your readers will continue to care what happens. In the opening scene of Gone With The Wind the reader learns that Scarlett is about to lose the man she loves. The Tarleton twin’s announcement of impending war sets the stage for conflicts to come.
- Establish your setting. You probably won’t give your setting a heavy emphasis at first, but it must be present in every scene. Unless you provide glimpses into its setting the reader will feel ungrounded. The opening scene of Gone With The Wind gives glimpses of its setting in details like Scarlett’s flowered-muslin dress with its billowing skirts and seventeen-inch waist, of quarreling possum hounds, and of the clink of silver being laid for supper by darkies.
- Engage the emotions. Drawing your readers in emotionally helps them connect with your main character. Be sure to have your main character react with story events on an emotional level. In Gone With The Wind we are first amused by Scarlett’s simpering, spoiled ways. This draws us in, and when she receives the bad news about Ashley, we grieve also.
- Connect with a universal experience. One of the reasons readers read is to make sense of their world. They want to identify themselves in a story so that they can become changed, like the main character, for the better. A great way to engage readers is to evoke an experience common to man. Most people understand the pain of romantic loss, which is why the opening conflict in Gone With The Wind effectively hooks the reader.
- Raise questions. Intrigue and engage your reader using one of the most powerful tools in existence: the desire to know what happens next. Now that she knows the news about Ashley, what will Scarlett do at the barbeque? Will she lose the man she loves? Will he cause a scandal by choosing Scarlett instead of the woman he’s engaged to marry? All of these questions lure readers further into the story.
The beginning of a novel presents challenges for a writer, but when written well, your opening scene will draw readers into your story and have them turning pages from the start.
Related Plotting Articles
Have something to say? The comment link is at the top of the post below the title.
©2014 by Janalyn Voigt