(this workshop was originally presented to a classroom of students at Arkansas Tech University, November 5th, 2015; everything in this workshop is my personal opinion as a writer and reader of SFF fiction)
Writing a good opening scene requires establishing the setting, introducing characters, and introducing some semblance of conflict or plot (often manifesting in the inciting incident).
In a novel, you generally have a chapter to accomplish this; in a short story, you might have a single scene, or a page or two.
Setting needs to inform your story, either by providing obstacles for your characters or being an integral part to the plot. By effectively establishing your setting, you ground your characters in a world that feels real to the reader, whether it is a spaceship deck orbiting a distant star a thousand years in the future, a small town high school set in present day, or the medieval court of a French queen.
Establishing setting is different from world-building. This has nothing to do with figuring out the religions of the world, mapping an imaginary space station, or figuring out the political structure of the story world. This is strictly about grounding the reader and your characters in the story, providing a backdrop for the events of the story to unfold.
[Disclaimer: I primarily write science fiction and fantasy based in history, so that is what I am familiar with, but these notes should be applicable to any genre]
To create a realistic setting for your story, you need to establish the following:
- When does the story take place?
- Could be a specific year or era in history, present day, far in the distant future, or any variation between. It can be as specific as an exact date or as broad as a political or technological era.
- The important thing is to provide the reader with an impression of whenthe story takes place in relation to the world that they already know, whether your story is in the real world or in an invented world of your own making. How is it different—if it is different at all?
- This can be most easily established with:
- referencing specific dates, wars, events, or persons (London, 1815; the Civil War; the reign of King Henry VII; the Han Dynasty; “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”; etc.)
- technology, or lack thereof (use of smartphones, internet, and social media for modern settings; horse-drawn carriages for settings existing prior to the 20th century; lack of indoor plumbing or electricity for pre-Victorian settings; primary use of swords or bows in combat for medieval settings; slightly improved technology for near future settings; holographic communicators, lightsabers, and spaceships for far future settings; etc.)
- fashion (neon tights and side ponytails for the 80s; skinny jeans for a modern setting; empire-waist dresses for the Regency period; corsets, bustles, and cravats for the Victorian age; technologically advanced jumpsuits for a future setting, etc.)
- Where does the story take place?
- Could be a real location from history or modern day Earth, an invented location based on aspects of the real world, or somewhere completely from your imagination. (e.g. New York City, Ancient Mesopotamia, Medieval England, a futuristic Detroit, outer space, the realm of fairytales, thirteenth century French court, etc.)
- The location for your initial scene may be small and simple (a bedroom, classroom, or corporate meeting room), vast and complicated (a warring battlefield, a system of interconnected tunnels far beneath the earth, or on the deck of an imperial starship currently in hyperspace), or anything in between.
- This can be established through expositional description, but think in broad strokes rather than specific detail. Only describe what is necessary for the reader to get a sense of where the story is taking place. I try to follow a general rule of no more than three sentences to describe a location, unless it is particularly important that I describe more (but it’s usually not that important).
- You don’t need:
- lengthy descriptions of scenery
- observations of weather (unless it’s important somehow)
- backstory and/or history related to the location
- infodumps of any kind
- What is the social status quo? How do characters interact with each other?
- This doesn’t have to be an intricate examination of the sociopolitical atmosphere of your story world, merely an acknowledgement of what is considered normal.
- Consider your main character(s) place in society, where they stand in the hierarchy of power, and how that affects the way they move through the world. For instance, a servant will interact with the world differently than a nobleman or a queen, just as a maintenance technician will interact differently than a starship captain.
- What are the divisions between gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, and physical or mental ability?
- This errs toward world-building, but it can be an important part of establishing a realistic setting, especially how the divisions, prejudices, and discriminations affect the main character and those around them,and how those views differ from or adhere to the views of modern society. While you don’t have to include all of this in your first pages, it’s something worth considering.
- Most writing relies on visual descriptions to establish setting, but using the other senses in your descriptions can really bring a setting to life.
- Sight: remember to include color, the way light reflects off an object, visible wear or age, apparent texture, etc.
- Sound: consider the sounds your characters might hear as a direct part of the natural setting—distant conversation, construction machinery down the street, the creak of a ship’s mast or the splash of waves against the hull, the thrum of FTL engines powering up, wind in the trees, the tick of a clock, the pitch and tone of someone’s voice; etc.
- Touch: describe texture and temperature as it is relevant to how your character is interacting with the setting—rough, peeling wallpaper; condensation on a cold can of soda; the grit of sand against skin; the blistering heat of a desert sun; the dry brittle feel of an old skeleton; the thick humidity of a muggy swamp; the mushiness of processed food; etc.
- Taste: think beyond food and drink and consider other tastes that your character might experience—a change in saliva, presence of blood in their mouth due to injury, a tang of sweetness on the air, the taste of rain, dust, mud, grease, the taste of evaporated steel in the wake of a destructive laser—anything that could be a direct product of the environment.
- Smell: this follows along with taste, since the two are so closely entwined, but smell is one of your greatest tools after sight, so use it! Think of what scents and odors your setting might produce—the clean smell of pure oxygen pumped into a spacy colony, the scent of musty autumn leaves, coming rain, freshly trimmed grass, body odor, burning firewood, cigarette smoke, clean sheets, dusty parchment, etc.
- Visceral: the human body responds to external stimuli beyond the five senses, and giving your characters visceral responses will help the reader connect to them more deeply. Consider changes in heartbeat, changes in breathing, the feel of goosebumps, a character’s throat tightening up when they get emotional, a rush of adrenaline, a chill of fear, a tingling sense of dread, etc. For this, I highly recommend reading The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression for a good primer on how to convey emotion and internal thought through physical action.
- A good rule of thumb is to include one of the secondary senses at least once per page, and be careful of repeating the same sensory descriptions in close proximity. A little goes a long way.
Introducing your characters and establishing their goals and motivations is paramount to getting readers to care about them. The sooner the reader becomes invested in your characters, the more likely they are to continue reading the first chapter or scene of your story—and beyond.
You should introduce your main character in the first sentence of your story, and they should be fully integrated into the story environment from the moment they are introduced. Ground them in the setting by having them interact with their surroundings, either directly, with the character acting upon the setting, or indirectly, with the environment acting upon the character.
Though make sure that you are telling the story through the right viewpoint character! Focus on whoever can tell the most interesting story, the person who will face the greatest change throughout the course of the story; this is usually the person who has the most at stake, the most to lose, or the most to prove. Personally, I find that ordinary characters who do extraordinary things make for more compelling viewpoint characters than experienced heroes.
There are four things to consider when introducing a character in your opening pages: normal life, a definable goal, and the motivations behind their actions.
- What is considered normal life for the main character?
- Does the character enjoy this life or wish for something else?
- Your story should start just before great change comes into the character’s life, either by their own actions or external forces. You must lay the foundation for that change in your opening pages to give the reader a reason to keep reading.
- Your character should have a clear, definable goal in the first pages of your story.
- This can be something simple and specific, such as wanting to get to school on time, or something complex and ambitious, such as sneaking into a palace to assassinate a king during a brutal siege, which might be resolved by the end of the first scene or chapter of your story. Or it could be a distant goal that the character will work toward for the rest of the story, ultimately reaching their goal (or failing) by the end of the story.
- Regardless of the type of goal, the character should be actively pursuing that goal in the first pages of your story. Your character needs to be an agent of change in their own lives, always moving toward their goals, even if they are repeatedly set back.
- There should be obstacles between your character and their goals. This is what creates conflict in your story. Sometimes these obstacles may manifest as a result of the antagonist’s direct actions, but obstacles can present themselves in the environment or setting, from within the character themselves, or by other external forces out of the character’s control.
- There must be a sense of forward momentum in the opening pages of your story, and a clear goal helps give the impression of action andmovement.
- Why does your character want to pursue this goal?
- Your character needs a reason for wanting this, some driving force behind everything that they do. Try to determine what drives them and how far they will go to achieve their goals.
- This can be as simple as ambition, curiosity, obligation, feeling that it is the right thing to do, wanting to prove that they can do it, or because if they don’t, something bad will happen.
- The best motivations come from within the character, not from external forces, and even if external forces are involved in motivating the character, you still need to give the character a solid, internally justified reason for choosing to pursue the goal.
- Things to avoid (these are generally agreed to be a result of lazy writing, so if you decide to use these tropes, it should not be the sole reason behind your character’s motivation; give the character a secondary motive for pursuing their goals):
- Killing or harming loved ones
- (especially women who exist in the story only to be harmed or killed in order to motivate a male character; see “Women in Refrigerators”)
- Prophecies, Destiny, or “Chosen One” narratives
- introduce your character by having them wake up in the morning
- start with a dream or a flashback
- show the character showering, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc.
- have them describe themselves by looking in the mirror
- allow your character to engage in pointless navel-gazing or reflective meditation
- try to squeeze in your character’s entire backstory when you introduce them
- start the story with your character in a life-or-death situation (the reader doesn’t care yet)
- start the story on the first day of school
- have your character address the reader directly or introduce themselves by name
Keep in mind that these openings can be done, but it is difficult to do them well. When these openings work, it is because there is a lot of other stuff being accomplished at the same time.
Once you have introduced your main character and established the initial setting of the story, the rest of your opening pages should build toward the inciting incident—the initial conflict that marks the beginning of the overarching plot, setting in motion the chain of events that make up the rest of the story, and motivating your main character into action.
Without the inciting incident, there is no story.
This is the moment when everything changes for the main character, upsetting the balance of their normal life, creating conflict, introducing adventure, and/or posing a problem that now needs to be solved. The main character is forced into action, usually by external forces, and is no longer able to return to the life that they had at the beginning of the story.
The sooner the inciting incident occurs and launches the main character into the story, the more likely readers will keep reading to find out what happens next.