Thursday's Tips: Questions for your Opening Scene

Story openings can be very confusing. There are a few unasked questions an author must answer in the opening pages of a story in order to hook readers. 

Have you ever started a book and wondered what was happening? I mean, you could see the story playing out, but the point-of-view character’s mission wasn’t clear. Brings me to my first item. As you’re writing your story’s opening, help the reader connect with the story by giving them an idea of the character’s goal in that scene, of the “mission” they’re on. This applies to genres outside of suspense. Even a trip to the grocery store to pick up milk classifies as a mission. Give us something we can relate with. So, first question: 

What is my point-of-view character’s mission in this scene? 

Second question relates with the entire book, but must be revealed in your story opening: your story question. I’ve covered story question on this blog before. (Tip: Use the Search box at the top of this blog and search for keywords: story question.)

Are you clear on your overall story question? First, verify that you are, and then include this element in the opening pages. Story question helps engage readers, gives them another reason to keep reading. It’s very important to include in your opening pages and will keep you on track as you write the entire story. Remember, as soon as you answer the story question, the story is over. Wind down quickly following that and let your readers go. So, second question:

What is my story question, and how did I represent it in the opening pages of my book?

Next area is characterization. What makes readers care for my character? How have I made my character relatable, noble, respectable, or otherwise likable so that readers will keep reading? Characters must undergo an arc or transition from the opening of the story to the ending. So, they don’t always begin the story in a likable way. But we’re expecting our readers to keep reading. That’s challenging if all they see are the rough edges and annoying quirks. So, give characters a likeable or relatable element, something noble that helps us connect with him/her. This will help keep us reading. Ask yourself:

How have I helped endear my main character(s) to readers?

Part of the reader’s job as a story opens is to get a sense of story world, or setting. Readers want to picture it. Characters might be trapped in a dark cave underground, and readers will still require some type of description, preferably one laced with emotion so we feel what the point-of-view character (POVC) feels  while being trapped there. The descriptors should not be overly long, and don’t even have to be visual (as in the cave example), but they should be included so readers can immerse themselves in the story. This is part of the enjoyment of reading. Give this to your audience, and they’ll come back for more. So, as you are crafting that opening scene where you are setting up the story world for your book, ask yourself:

Where are the characters, and how have I grounded the scene in that location? How have I helped readers experience it? And how have I used setting to aid the telling of my story?

Deep POV will help ground readers in the character’s perspective and should include at least one anchoring emotion so readers can relate immediately. Some definitions: deep POV is point of view (perspective or “camera lens”) that helps us experience the story from deep within the character. There are some tell-tale signs that a story has not been written in deep POV. For example, the narrative should never read: he thought or she imagined. Instead, just give us the line. 

Lack of deep POV: 

If she ran any faster she was likely to trip, he thought. 

Deep POV:

If she ran any faster, she was likely to trip. (Leave off the final phrase. Notice the punctuation changes as well.) 

(Tip: For more on deep POV on this blog, use the Search box above and put in keywords: deep POV.)

The other definition is for anchoring emotion. An anchoring emotion (my term; others may call it something else) is one that is relatable for most readers. It’s universal. Most people have felt it. If you can dig into your character’s heart and find a universal, fitting, believable emotion for the situation they’re in (the situation the inciting incident sets off), you will hook readers. So, let’s say your POVC (point-of-view character) is a mother to a three-year-old daughter who has gone missing. This scenario is a great well for universal emotions. By assigning the strongest, most relatable anchoring emotion to this scene, you will hook the most readers. Then, let us feel it with her. The best anchoring emotion might be fear. What will happen to her daughter? No one loves her like the POVC does. No has the protective instincts the POVC (mother) does. How will the POVC live without knowing her daughter is safe? How will she keep breathing? How will she keep from panicking so she can help the investigators? Dig deep and feel the anxiety so you can translate it in a few lines on the page. (Don’t overdo it.) Anchor the scene, the POVC, and the reader in that emotion, and you’ll have engaging fiction. So, ask yourself:

Have I used deep POV? (For more info on this, just Google “Deep POV & Writing.”)

And have I used an anchoring emotion in this scene to hook readers?

This list of questions should give you a good start. So, take a peek at your opening scene and double-check. How would you answer these questions?


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