The Opening Scene

Starting a new story is always an exciting thing. Usually I’ll have had the idea brewing in my head for some time, with a lot of the key scenes already visualized, and the structure mapped out. Usually those ideas will end up as a couple of sentences of notes – I’m not a big “pre-writer” – but as they’re so clear in my mind, that’s all I really need.

Actually starting though is one of the trickiest bits. That’s because it’s usually difficult to work out exactly where in the action I should set the opening scene. Again, I’m not the kind of person who writes biographies for my characters, or anything like that, but once I’ve been living with a story idea for a while, a lot of ‘background’ information will be knocking around inside my head, waiting for me to draw on.

The issue is choosing the point at which the story begins. One of the things I’ve come to learn is that a story works best if I begin it as late as possible.

Let me explain what I mean…

Take my newest story (The Threesome is Just the Beginning). A glance at the blurb will tell you it features a couple (Holly and Nick) and an exchange student living with them (Amber). Amber acts as a catalyst, making Holly and Nick’s sex life a lot more interesting! The tricky bit with this story was choosing the moment to set things in motion. When I first began, with a blank screen in front of me, my initial instinct was to provide a lot of context. I drafted (and quickly) deleted a scene where Holly and Nick were debating whether to host an exchange student, a scene where they were setting off from home to meet her at the airport, another as they waited for her in the arrivals hall, and another which covered the highlights of sharing their home with Amber for a year. The trouble was, they all started the story too early, long before anything interesting happened. In the end, the opening scene is set almost eleven months into Amber’s year-long stay with Holly and Nick, and the key moment is when a stranger (a girl Amber has picked up) walks into the kitchen. I had to hold back from starting the story until something interesting happening… (I could have started a little later, when Holly sees Amber and the strange girl kissing, but the opening I used lets me introduce Holly and Nick more effectively, so that’s the one I went with).

See what I mean. Start the story as late as possible.

Another example is Islands.

Islands features Marcus, a wealthy English businessman who is widowed and very lonely. He owns a house on a Greek island, where he meets Callie, the daughter of his maid (who has broken her leg, removing her from the scene – Callie is on holiday from her university studies in Athens, so steps in to take her mother’s place). Once again, I had the overall structure and all the key scenes in my head from weeks of thinking about the story before I began writing it. What I didn’t have was the opening scene. I wrote an opening where Marcus was building the house with his wife, and one where the locals watched its construction and the arrival of the foreigners and their glamorous friends. They provided context, but they started the story too far way from the actual story, so I deleted them. Instead, I started the story with Marcus arriving immediately before he’s about to meet Callie. Not at the moment they first see each other – I gave the reader a page of figuring out where the story was set and getting to know Marcus first – but close enough that the story is in motion right from the very beginning. The lesson was the same – start the story as late as possible.

Anyway, I thought that was interesting. I wrote it as a break from working on Part 3 of my new series. I’d better get back to it!

Take care. P

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