The first scene in a book must have the following things added in:
- Your protagonist. Just as a duckling will assume that the first moving thing it sees is its mother and follow it around, your reader will assume that the first character encountered in your book is your protagonist. You, therefore, need to ensure that your readers can identify with this character. Give them something about your main man (or woman) to hang their hat on, be it memorable, endearing, quirky or flawed.
- The catalyst. Put your protagonist slap, bang in the middle of the action at the start of the book. Give the hero something dynamic and scary to be doing as they are being introduced to your reader. Make it exciting and put us in some doubt as to whether your star can get out of this fix, but leave your readers in no doubt whatsoever that they want the protagonist to triumph.
- Your protagonist’s core need. Let us know, right from the get-go what your lead’s fears, needs, dreams, and/or goals are. At the same time, show us what kind of obstacles stand in the way of those goals, and let the reader know why these present a problem.
That same first scene should have, by the time you have finished redrafting, the following things deducted:
- Excessive exposition. Resist any urge to discuss at great length the reasons why your main character finds him or herself in these particular circumstances. This information is best inserted, piece by piece into ongoing action – the more dynamic the better, as long as it does not distract or detract from the reader’s enjoyment of the story.
- Backstory. Maintain focus, at the beginning of a story, on what is happening in the here and now. Your reader will, at some point, want to know why your protagonist is so bitter and twisted about life, but spare us the story of his or her difficult childhood until (much (but not too much)) later in the story, at which point the reader will (hopefully) be hooked.
- A long narrative passage. Don’t begin your story with a long description of … well, of anything at all, unless you want your reader to put the book down immediately. Save descriptions for the quieter, less dynamic middle part of the book where our hero has lost his way and has no idea what to do next (and then put a metaphorical bomb underneath his chair).
These are not hard and fast rules that have to be followed obsessively; you will find works of great depth and strength that ignore them completely, but they are good to keep in mind as you begin writing.