The Opening

Your opening scene is arguably the most important of your book. More specifically, the first sentence or two, or at the outside the first paragraph, will determine whether the reader will be intrigued enough to continue reading or will put the book back on the shelf and look elsewhere. These sentences are called the narrative hook. Their job is to arouse curiosity and interest in the reader.

The remainder of the scene is only marginally less important. For that reason, you must choose carefully where to begin the story. It must be a moment of high drama for the main character or characters. Perhaps that point will be at the linear beginning of the story, such as an event that triggers everything that follows. Perhaps it is something that happened before the action begins, called the back story, and is the ultimate catalyst for what follows. Perhaps it is something that happens well into the story, an event so momentous that giving the reader a hint at the beginning will sustain interest until the full event is revealed. The essential requirement is that it raise intriguing questions in the reader’s mind.

After settling on the opening scene, you have two other decisions to make. The first is which character’s(s’) point of view and which verb tense you will use to tell the story. The most common choices are the protagonist (lead character) and the past tense. If you decide to use the present tense, the protagonist’s point of view is the only option. In the case of either tense, the writing is limited to things the protagonist experiences in person or deduces in his or her own mind. All plot developments must be presented through his or her direct involvement.

An increasingly popular choice is the multiple point of view wherein the story is presented from the perspective of several characters. These differing points of view can be presented in alternate scenes or chapters but must not be mixed together in a single scene in order to avoid reader confusion. The advantage to this technique is that the reader can learn about important events in the plot or sub-plots before the protagonist knows about them, thus increasing the tension and suspense, and can understand what motivates other major players, especially those who wish the protagonist harm. Using multiple viewpoints can be tricky, however. Choose only those characters who will play a significant role in the plot. If you use too many, the story can become unwieldy. It is also easy to get carried away and overwrite. That said, the writer has greater flexibility in telling the story and can create well-rounded characters above and beyond the protagonist by employing the multiple point of view.

Finally, you must decide whether you will begin with your first chapter or with a prologue. If your opening scene is the linear beginning of the story, you will write it as Chapter 1. If, however, you begin with a scene that is separated in time from the main body of the story, you will want to place it in a prologue. This is the case if your scene depicts an essential piece of the back story but does not flow directly into the story. The same is true when you want to foreshadow a climactic moment that will happen later. Regardless, two basic rules apply. A prologue must be short — no more than two manuscript pages. And it must reveal only enough significant information to stimulate the reader’s curiosity. If you give too much away at the beginning, there will be no incentive to read further.

Have you chosen the best options for your story? Time to write!

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