Sunday, February 6, 2022

The Art of the Opening Scene

by Steve Sheinkin 


When it comes to narrative nonfiction, I bet we all agree on the importance of opening scenes. I’m talking about the first two or three pages, maybe 600-800 words. You’ve got the grab the reader, prove your story is going to be compelling, convince them they want to know more. 

Sure, but how? I wish I had a better answer than trial and error. That’s what works for me.

As I’m researching, I keep a list of possible openings, stand-alone bits of action that are intriguing, and that raise questions. I give special preference to scenes that are documented with primary sources, especially sources that include details of what participants said or thought—the sorts of things a novelist or filmmaker would invent. Then I write the scenes. I write a few different ones as part of my first draft. Try them out, see how they work with the rest of the story.

For my book Bomb, I tried five or six different prologues, moments from all over the story. As I showed each to my editor, she kept saying, “This is good—but what is your book about?” It’s one of those things editors say, and it seems annoying, but turns out to be profound. The question really forced me to think. My answer: I wanted to write spy thriller set in the Manhattan Project. “Fine,” my editor said. “Then make sure your opening scene feels like part of that kind of story.” 

With this in mind, I settled on a scene of FBI agents closing in on an atomic spy at his home after the war. It’s entertaining and raises questions. It’s well documented from multiple viewpoints. And it lets the reader know exactly what they’re in for. It’s the kind of thing a teacher can read to a class in a few minutes and, hopefully, convince some of them to pick up the book. The kind of thing you can pull out when you find yourself in the scariest place on earth—the stage of a crowded middle school auditorium. 

For my newest, Fallout, a Cold War thriller, opening options included an American pilot getting shot down over Russia and a brilliant mathematician at Los Alamos realizing how to build a hydrogen bomb. I settled on what’s probably my favorite opening scene in any of my books: a thirteen-year-old Brooklyn paperboy stumbling into a Soviet spy ring.

It’s a cinematic scene with plenty of documentation. It doesn’t require background knowledge of the Cold War, and it sets up a lot of the stuff I want to talk about in the early chapters. Why are the Soviets and Americans spying on each other? Why are the stakes so high? How can seemingly small details and ordinary people shove the fate of the world in one direction or another?

 

Give It a Try

Think about a current project. Look over your research notes. Pick some favorite moments from your story, things that might work as a two- or three-page prologue. Go through them one at a time and ask yourself:

1. Is it a grabber? Does it pass the I’m-in-a-middle-school-auditorium test?

2. Do I have, or can I find great sources?

3. Does the scene/story require a lot of background knowledge or explanation in order to make sense? (If so, it’s out.)

4. Does it set the right mood? Meet the “what is this book about?” challenge?

 

You’ll likely come up with a few candidates as you research. I’d say write them all. You may well end up using all of them, in different parts of the story. But hopefully one will stand out. When it’s right, you’ll know it!

 



Meet the Author

Steve Sheinkin is the NYT bestselling author of fast-paced, cinematic nonfiction for young readers, including Bomb, Fallout, Undefeated, The Port Chicago 50, Born to Fly, and The Notorious Benedict Arnold. Awards include a Newbery Honor and three National Book Award finalist honors. He lives with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY.

49 comments:

  1. I find this post compelling and convincing! Thank you, Steve.

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  2. Wow, really appreciate the thought process that goes into building an intriguing opening scene. Thank you for the peek behind the scenes, Steve.

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  3. Wow! When I take lots of notes, I realize that there are gaps in my craft skills. Steve, thank you for sharpening my pencil for writing opening scenes!

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  4. What a perfectly timed post - I was just weighing two different openings for my new WIP yesterday! Thanks for the advice to help me move forward!

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    1. No shame in writing them both! That's what I do - at least for me, I can't really tell if something is working until I write the sentences.

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  5. Thank you for a peek at your process. Very helpful!

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  6. Makes me want to read all the books you mentioned, all real thrillers, which I long to write but never get past the first chapter. Thanks for the tips.

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  7. Great post - and I love the advice to make sure the opening scene sets the tone of the story.

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  8. Thank you for an inspiring post. I'm now going to search for your books!

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  9. Such great advice. Openings are always such a challenge.

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  10. Thank you for sharing this great advice on openings. When you said you wrote a thriller that made me wonder if the book is totally non-fiction or does it have an air of informational fiction. I haven't read your book so I don't know.

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    1. Totally non-fiction. But I'm going for the FEEL of a thriller, which people usually (unfairly) associate only with fiction.

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  11. Got it! That middle school auditorium really rings a bell with me. Thanks.

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    1. A scary place... but there's no better way to test out an idea!

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  12. Wow! I love this! So useful to me.I will make sure the opening scene sets the tone of the story

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  13. Steve, you grabbed me with the first paragraph and proceeded to unfold terrific thoughts to get inside that obnoxious first scene. Thank you for your knowledge and advice. I was thinking about my scenes and saw so many holes. Congrats on your newest, FALLOUT!

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  14. Thank you, Steve! I am up for the challenge to answer the question, "What is this book about.

    Suzy Leopold

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  15. As someone who always has trouble with opening scenes (in both nonfiction and fiction), I really appreciate Steve's brilliant answer! And "Does it pass the I’m-in-a-middle-school-auditorium test?" is as hilarious as it is on-point. :D

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  16. Opening scenes are always a challenge for me and I appreciate your tips and expertise. Also, I liked that you said "trial and error" because that's certainly part of my writing process! Thanks!

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  17. Thank you for sharing your helpful insights with us. Much food for thought. . .

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  18. I love hearing about the process of the opening pages. In PBs, it is the opening line too that is so important. It is fun to toy with different options. Thanks for sharing your insight.

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  19. Steve, your books have given me such new insight into what narrative nonfiction "can be." Thanks for giving us a glimpse into your process some new things to look for in the opening scenes of various mentor texts!

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  20. Thank you for the post. Looking forward to reading your books.

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  21. What a great set of guiding questions - thank you for sharing your insights!

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  22. I sometimes struggle with exactly what I want to say with a story and often my agent or critique partners will ask me that same question, "what is your story about?" Such a simple yet grounding question. Thanks for your post!

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  23. The middle-school-gym test says it all! Great advice from an expert! Thanks, Steve.

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  24. STEVE: I went online and read the openings of a handful of your books to see your work in action. This was SO HELPFUL! I will DEFINITELY be using this technique! THANK YOU for the INSPIRATION to TRULY HOOK our readers!

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  25. Love this post - especially the question we all ask all throughout the writing process - what is this about? I LOVED Fallout - that opening scene had me on the edge of my seat.

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  26. Steve, I love your work, and inspired by your storytelling. I'm sorry we didn't have a chance to meet through the Highlights Workshop I intended to participate in. The feedback you've received from editors has made me realize what my book is all about. It's out on submission, getting rave rejections, but no cigar yet. I may just have to dig back into the proposal to see if those first chapters reflect the heart of the story. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Julie. And rave rejections - that actually means a lot. I've been there... it means you're getting close!

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  27. My kids and I are such huge fans of your work! Can't wait to read Fallout. Thank you for the advice on openings! I love the idea of weighing whether or not it would hold up in front of middle schoolers. That is a true test, indeed! :) So much relies on those first couple pages!

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  28. Thank you, Steve, for these insights. Answering the question "What is this book about?" is just as relevant to a mostly fiction PB writer, as is getting that opening scene right. Even in a PB the opening scene should set you up for what is to come. PS: I read Rabbi Harvey Rides Again - hilarious. Thanks again.

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  29. I really like the idea of keeping a running list of possible openings. Thanks for the advice.

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  30. I love this post and your subsequesnt comment that you are going for the feel of a thriller, while remaining totally nonfiction. Tantilizing idea for a possible way to start a troublesome NF of mine... Thank you!

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  31. Thanks for these great tips!

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  32. I have these books in my HS library, and I read the opening of Fallout for First Chapter Friday last week. It might be written for middle schoolers, but my students were captivated, and the book was immediately checked out. I've attempted writing NF PBs but never a longer narrative nonfiction work, but as a former HS history teacher, you've now got me thinking. Thanks for the blog post! ~Kerry

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  33. Any and all insights into your amazing writing is valuable Steve! This is a terrific way to think about opening scenes!

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  34. Thanks for the sage advice. Question #3 helped me zone in on what to keep or toss or inspired me to look at what I am writing from a different perspective. This is great!

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  35. Awesome! I will keep your list of questions when considering possibilities; thanks for sharing them.

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  36. Thanks for the tips Steve, and for sharing how it works for you!

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  37. Great questions to ask oneself. THANKS.

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  38. Such great advice to get that first line right.

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  40. Thank you for the advice to rethink opening scenes.

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