It’s often said that people (or more importantly, literary agents) will stop reading your book if you haven’t hooked them within the first sentence.
I suspect that this is probably a little pessimistic, but it’s true that given the intensely competitive nature of getting published in fiction, starting strong is critically important.
But the opening scene has another important role, as well as hooking a reader. You need to set up the ending.
“What?” I hear you cry. “That’s all backwards! I’m going to work up to my ending.”
Well, yes. But also, no. A satisfying climax cannot just come out of the blue. Everything has to be foreshadowed, and a truly elegant novel will have given you all the clues right at the outset.
All satisfying stories are in essence about how a character changes (feel free to disagree with me about this statement in the comments). I like to define this change in terms of what a character wants, and what they need. Read more about this 'character journey' here.
What a character wants tends to be external – such as money, a particular partner, a job, etc. What a character needs is about personal fulfilment, and is usually some form of compassion or courage.
In the final climax, your character should be faced with a difficult challenge, where they must choose between finally getting what they’ve wanted all along, or sacrificing that in order to be who they need to be – and in doing so, realising what they actually needed all along.
In order to give this climax impact, the opening scene should foreshadow the entire thing. That means you need to introduce your protagonist and establish what they want and what they need.
Then there should be some kind of challenge – this may or may not be the inciting incident (or call to action) to which they make the wrong decision – i.e. their response is fully motivated by what they want.
This (usually selfish) decision then leads to a cascade of mishaps and challenges which they spend the rest of the book dealing with, until finally, at the end… well, we’ve already been through this.
Take another look at your opening scene from this perspective and you may find you're able to strengthen it by ensuring these elements are there.
Please leave any comments or thoughts on this below.