last updated: 18 November 2018 (approximate reading time: 8 minutes; 1692 words)
For the reader, the first scene is literally the first thing they will read after they have committed to trying a book. For an author, this is the point where they have to start delivering on the promise—they need to deliver on the expectations that led the reader to decide that this book would be the next book they read.
For many readers, the first scene determines whether they will continue to read the book. If the author gets the scene right, the reader will be dragged into the book. Not just that, but the reader will be enthused to keep flipping pages. If the author gets the first scene wrong, the reader may stop reading, or if they continue, they will be cautious and looking for fault.
Purpose of the First Scene
A first scene has one single purpose—to draw a reader into a book.
The aim should not be to amaze the reader—although if the author can, that’s good. Equally, the writing doesn’t need to be any good, but again, it does help.
Instead, the aim should be to help the reader into the book. The reader needs something to hold onto as they take their first steps. The reader needs to learn something so that they have an idea about where they are going. But more than that, the reader needs to want to keep reading.
A reader may have an idea what a book is about. Indeed, it is likely that the reader will have preconceived notions—they may have read reviews, heard the author talk, looked at the back cover text, or had the book pressed into their hands with the words: you should read this.
Any preconceived notions may be right or they may be wrong.
Whatever the reader thinks they know is irrelevant—the first scene is for the author to start telling the story. This is a cold start—the slate is wiped clean and the story begins.
And in dragging the reader into the story, the author needs to be cognizant that the reader will have no knowledge of what is driving any character who is introduced in this first scene. The author can’t expect the reader to have an emotional link and to be rooting for the character. The author can’t expect the reader to feel any sympathy for the character beyond the basic emotions that one human may feel for another.
In short, the first scene has no context. Instead, if the author gets the scene right, then the first scene becomes the context leading the reader forward.
Elements of a First Scene
So what makes a great first scene?
There are no rules here, however, a good place to start is with a confluence of two elements:
- an interesting character, and
- that character in an intriguing situation
Let’s look at these in some more detail.
The first character that the reader meets does not need to be the protagonist. However, one of the characters in the first scene does need to be a material character in the context of the story.
The focal-point character does not need to be a virtuous character—they can be a low-down crook—but they need to be interesting and engaging. If they’re not of interest or if they repel the reader, then why will the reader turn the page?
And even if the reader doesn’t know it, this character will likely be at inflection point—something will be changing in their life. The reader may not realize and the character themselves may not realize, but there must be a change happening in that character’s life in this scene and that change will usually be connected with the situation.
The character must find themselves in a situation.
This situation is not necessarily the story, but it needs be something that matters in terms that the reader can understand and connect with. When the reader empathizes with a character and the situation within which the character finds themselves, the reader can start to engage on an emotional level. That engagement encourages the reader to flip pages to find what happens next.
In case it needs saying, a situation without a character is uninteresting. Equally, a situation in which the character is not engaged is not interesting.
The first scene should not necessarily resolve any issues. Indeed, if the situation in which the character finds themselves is resolved, then there’s little incentive for the reader to move on to the second scene.
Instead, the scene should grip and leave the reader asking: what next? What happens next to that interesting character?
Some first scenes are a prolog—typically a scene set at a different time in a different location, maybe with unrelated characters.
I’m not a big fan of this approach. I find it slows the understanding of the story that is being told because it lays out a different story. Equally, if the current story can only be understood in terms of a historical event, then that suggests to me that the story is simply not strong enough.
Some prologs flash forward—they tell of an event that will happen later in the book. You will have seen this technique on TV when there is a piece of action and at the start of the next scene, there is a caption: “24 hours earlier…” (or however much earlier).
Again, I’m not a fan of this flash-forward technique. It just tells me that there’s a lot of dull stuff that’s going to happen and the author is hoping to keep you wading through all the dull drudge with the promise of something interesting.
That said, if you’ve read about my preferences, you’ll know that I’m rarely impressed with any messing with the timeline of a story. Flashbacks can work for key characters when used judiciously, but on the whole, any messing is just a sign of a weak story.
A first scene should be simple. It shouldn’t overcomplicate or give too much information. The point of the first scene—as I have said more than once—is to drag a reader into the story. If a first scene loses this focus, then it is likely to fail in its basic function.
Is That It?
So is that it? Is that all there is to a first scene?
No. Of course not, there’s much more to a first scene—such as tone—but if there isn’t an interesting character in an intriguing situation, then a lot of readers aren’t going to make it to the second scene.
And getting to the second scene doesn’t mean that scene—or any subsequent scene—can be dull.
To close, let me suggest an opening scene that I think works really well: The Midnight Line by Lee Child, the 2017 Jack Reacher novel. You can read the first scene as an extract on Amazon or at any other online vendor that offers previews. Alternatively, head to your nearest bookstore and take a read.
For clarity, this note isn’t a comment on, or a review of the complete book. I’m just pointing at the first scene of this book as an example of a great first scene.
If you want to read more of my thoughts about first scenes, check out my piece Getting the First Chapter Right which looks at the first scene in a future novel of mine, but first, Reacher.
Reacher—The Midnight Line
Reacher finds the woman he has spent the last three days with has left. His reaction is not to cry, but to leave town—to get on the first bus, irrespective of where it is heading. Why? Because rules are rules.
If you’ve read any of Child’s Reacher books, you will know Reacher. But if you haven’t, the first few paragraphs give some key information about the man:
- A woman leaves—he lets her go and carries on with his life. There is no looking back and no attempt to stop her.
- He has a routine—a set of rules—he gets on the first bus, irrespective.
We’re not past the second page and we have an intriguing character. We have someone that already, as a reader, I want to know more about (I’ve read a good number of Reacher novels and I’m still hooked by the opening paragraphs here).
Reacher follows his rules without question. Reacher follows the rules without an external force imposing those rules or requiring his compliance. Watching Reacher catch a bus we learn about his core principles and we can presume these principles will be significant in the context of the story.
We don’t know if these principles are a force for good or for bad, and we don’t know if Reacher is a good guy or a bad guy from this first chapter (although if you’ve read any Reacher book, you will know the answer: Reacher’s a good guy and it is the adherence to his principles that makes him a good guy in the reader’s eyes).
At a rest stop, Reacher walks past a pawn shop and sees a West Point class ring which piques his curiosity. West Point, the United States Military Academy, is a tough place—anyone who has graduated will have worked hard and a class ring would have been an object of pride. Such a class ring would not have been given up lightly.
Reacher understands this abnormality. We follow his curiosity—he wants to know what has happened for someone to give up their class ring, and so do we.
And that is the end of the first scene in The Midnight Line. We have:
- Reacher—an engaging character
- a situation—a pawned West Point class ring
But more than that, the two are slotted together—Reacher understands that something must have happened for the owner to be parted from the ring. So not only are Reacher and the ring slotted together, but something has changed for Reacher—he has become curious and wants to know more about the circumstances in which the owner and ring were separated.
It is at this point that the scene ends and the reader can take a deep breath before jumping into the rest of the book.
I turned straight to the next page.