Opening Scene dos and don'
Adventures in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo beginners guide day 1

NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow. The Manuscript Shredder’s ultimate beginner’s guide starts now

So you’re ready for NaNoWriMo, but where to start? At the beginning, of course. Opening scenes may seem daunting, but with this checklist, you’ll be sure you have one that actually serves your story.

What an opening scene must do

Introduce the protagonist

People want to read stories about people, and that means they don’t want to sift through pages of description of side characters waiting to meet the star. Unless you have a really good reason (you probably don’t) you need to introduce your main character on your first page, probably even your first paragraph.

Introduce a conflict

Now that we have a character, she needs a problem.

This does not have to be the main conflict of the story, but a small relatable problem that draws the readers interest.

Most of these can be chosen from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs 
This list is useful because these needs are common to every human being throughout time. No matter when or where your character lives, she will need basic needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) as well as personal safety and a sense of belonging/love. If your character lacks one of these, you can easily use that as a jumping off point for your story.

If your character doesn’t have any problems in your opening scene, then you don’t have a functioning scene. Go mess with your character’s life. Give her a problem.

Establish tone

NaNoWriMo Beginner's Guide

What is tone? Its the mood of your story. Is it a cheerful pollyanna middle-grade adventure or a dark and gritty urban fantasy? Every genre has a certain feel to it. Think about the things you describe in your story and use the right words. Consider

I opened the trunk. Little wisps of dust caught the light and vanished, the echoes of memories trapped for so long finally released.


I opened the truck. The musty stank of ancient dry rot hit my nose.


Both of these examples describe the character opening a trunk, but the feeling evoked from this action is completely different. As you draft, you may find that your personal mood begins to creep into the tone of your story. If this starts to happen, get into your characters mindset with a playlist, some artwork, or another medium that will help you keep your tone consistent.

What not to do in your opening scene

Cliché openings

  • no waking up
  • no getting ready for…
  • no first day of school
  • no coffee shops
  • no festivals (I’m looking at you fantasy writers)
  • no mirror gazing

Really, this list could go on for a while, but you get the idea. If you’ve seen it, it’s been done.


While this is a draft and your goal is getting your word count, watch out for long info dumps. Info dumps are long sections where a character does nothing but describes something. This stops your story dead.
Info dumps can happen with setting, magic systems (fantasy), government rules (dystopia)


A close cousin to the info dump is the backstory dump. Yes, your character needs some backstory. No, you cannot put it in your first chapter. Why? the same reason you can’t do an info dump. It stops the forward progress of your plot.

Why is this important?

Readers are looking to make a connection with a character. They do this by relating to their current situation (that first conflict). Just like when you meet new people at a party, you don’t tell them your deepest, darkest secrets right after you shake hands. Readers need to make a connection first, then they will want to know more about the character’s past.

What should I do if I get inspired?

If you get a great idea for backstory or world building and don’t want to lose it, you can create a new document in Scrivener to make notes and when you compile to validate include that document. If you are working in word, you can write it in for word count, but with the understanding that you will need to edit it out in December.

Gimmicky openings

writing your opening pages-www.themanuscriptshredder.comGimmicky openings are tempting, but they never work. No one is shocked by opening with a sex scene. No one is hooked by a dead true love in the first sentence. Life or death first paragraph…meh. Trying for an overly dramatic opening without taking the time to establish a connection between the reader and the main character rarely works. Your reader will simply say, “So what?” If your reader doesn’t care about your fictional heroine, they won’t care about how many seconds are left on that bomb.

A Note about First lines
Don’t dwell on it. Just write it and go. you’ll change it 500 times in the editing process anyway, so don’t waste time.

The first chapter is often the most difficult to write. Just trying to figure out where your story begins can be a daunting task. By using this checklist, you can avoid the most common mistakes and begin NaNoWriMo with your best chapter first.

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M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.

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