Because I read hundreds of first chapters of novels a year as a writing coach and copyeditor, I've been compiling my list of essentials for a first scene. When you think of all you have to accomplish in the first few pages of a novel, you really understand how writing a great first scene requires numerous hours of study, practice, and concentration. It takes examining successful, long-lasting novels to see how that first scene was constructed. Have you ever read a first chapter that took your breath away? Made you cry? Shocked you? If you can accomplish an emotional reaction in your reader that quickly--hopefully by a quick attachment to your protagonist--half your battle is won.
Without sending you into cardiac arrest by listing nearly twenty important items you need in that first scene, I'm going to concentrate on some important ones--the ones that really need to be considered. Some of them are essential "do-nots." And the first one you may already know (but often feel so tempted to fall back on): No back-story.
Okay, we've heard that forever. But it's true. In order to start your story with a punch and draw your reader in, you need to construct a scene happening right here and now (or with something in the past, like a historical, right then and now). Regardless of the semantics here, you get the point. Some writing instructors say things like "no back-story in the first fifty pages." Some editors will be so bold as to say they would be happy if they saw NONE in the entire book. Maybe that won't quite work for your book, but it's safe to say that countless scenes start with a line or two in the present and then, whoosh! There you are reading about the character's early life or marriage or something she did right before the scene started. Which should make you ask...
Are you really starting your story in the right place? More often than not, the answer is no. That's what second and third drafts are for--throwing out your first scene or two. Most of the books I read don't "get going" until page twenty. All that up-front explaining, narrative, setting up the scene, etc., was all great back in Dickens's time (A Tale of Two Cities, for example). But we don't do that anymore. TV, movies, and video games have changed the modern reader's tastes and they want cinematic writing (so says Donald Maass in The Fire in the Fiction).
So how do you avoid the dreaded info dump and back-story? Think about the emotion, feeling, or sensation you want to evoke in your reader. You want to put them in a mood right away. You want to be specific to generate that mood, which means bringing in all the senses and showing your character in the middle of a situation, right off the bat.
And that's the next essential element: establishing immediately (did I say immediately?) the drives, desires, needs, fears, frustrations of your protagonist. Not only do you need to show her in conflict, in the midst of an inciting incident, but you need to reveal her heart, hint at her spiritual need, show her vulnerability, and what obstacles are standing in her way. In the first scene? Oh yes. Yes.
On top of all this, you must give the reader some idea of what the book is about--the theme or point--what they are getting into and why they should care. A tall order? You bet. But think--why are you writing this story anyway? What is the one thought, message, idea, conclusion, or feeling you want your readers to take home with them when they finish reading your book and set it down? Whatever that is should be set up in the first few pages, even if just a hint of a promise of what to expect. If your book is about forgiveness, then something about forgiveness or lack thereof must be an important element of your opening scene.
So, once you have all this in mind, think what scene would best set up your premise, plot arc, character arc, theme, and mood. You may have to write a bunch of different first chapters, as I sometimes do. Sometimes it's not until you near the end of writing your book do you get the right idea for the opening scene. You might be like John Irving, who starts every novel with the last line of his book and works backwards (yes, he does!). But he's onto something there--do you see? He knows exactly where he wants his readers to end up--plotwise and theme-wise. He already knows the end of the story and the take-home feeling he wants to evoke, so he sets about figuring how to lead that back to the start. Maybe that technique will work for you.
I'll go more into detail later this month about first chapters and all the structural elements that need to be set up. But for now, think about the heart of your story and the heart of your character. Once you find a way to put her heart right out there from line one, in a scene that throws her at odds with her world and shows how she reacts, you are on your way.