Yep, it’s another Les Edgerton’s Hooked extract. Probably worth noting that I don’t necessarily agree with all of this, but it’s definitely worth considering. And, in Edgerton’s defence, the reason I don’t always agree with him is because Spiritus doesn’t follow all these rules and I have to hope that it’s still good anyway. Anyway, he lists the components of the opening scene as follows:
- Inciting incident (see previous post)
- Story-worthy problem foreshadowing (see previous post)
- Initial surface problem (see previous post)
- Setup (aka scene location)
- Backstory (but not much of it)
- Opening line (obviously, but it’s got to grab the reader)
- Language (again obvious, but this is your chance to suck the reader in so it’s got to be perfect)
- Character introduction (brevity is key)
- Setting (again, brevity is your friend, you’re trying to hook the reader at this stage, not drown them in detail)
- Foreshadowing (mystery enough to make them keep reading, and possibly even a hint towards the ending)
Perhaps the primary reason we begin our stories in the wrong place is that a great many of us haven’t learned yet to trust the reader’s intelligence. Stories that involve the reader in a participatory exercise are much more enjoyable than a story in which everything is laid out for the reader.
These points are all transferable to pretty much every scene in the story, with one exception. The inciting incident only appears in the opening scene because it’s what tips the situation from stable to conflicted. Every incident and problem from then on happens as a result of the action that has gone before, and benefit from knowledge gained which means the reader is better informed. That’s what leads to the temptation to include more setting, backstory and character information in the opening scene: Resist the Urge to Explain. Readers are intelligent, and will extrapolate a lot of detail from very little information. If it’s important, but not essential to immediate understanding, you can explain it in bits and pieces later where it naturally fits the storytelling.
The other thing which is unique to the opening scene is the protagonist’s lack of goal at the start. Because this is the point when things change from stability, the protagonist doesn’t necessarily have a drive at the beginning – everything’s fine. Then the inciting incident occurs and the protagonist’s goal is to resolve the problem, which leads to another problem, which so on. This is the one time that we might see the protagonist at rest, until the very end of the story. And by then they ought to be a very different person.