Wattpad Logo
Start Writing on Wattpad
Join Now
Close button in shape of an X Close button in shape of an X

How to write an engaging opening

How to write an engaging opening How to write an engaging opening
In this article:

    Once you’ve chosen the best, hookiest way to open your story and thought about your GMCS, it’s time to start actually crafting a scene. Here are some ways to think about writing the opening. These are great elements to focus on to get your reader hooked, and thinking about these elements as you continue to write will keep your reader engaged.

    Writing the Opening

    Meet the characters

    Who are these people, and why should the audience care about them? Your opening chapter should ideally allow us to meet at least one of your main characters. This should not be a full description of the character and their entire backstory. Think about it: when you meet someone for the first time, you don’t generally give your entire personal history. Rather, this is the first taste of who the protagonist is as a person. This is the spot where you introduce the first of the protagonist’s goals and motivations. What do they want and why do they want it? How does the inciting incident affect them? Focusing on goals and motivations allows your reader to get to know the protagonist in an effective and dynamic way that simultaneously creates investment in the plot. 


    The walls of the club reverberated with the bass of the pulsing music. Jade crept down the alley on silent feet. Hunters were trained to move stealthily from the time they could walk, and her parents had trained her well.  She positioned herself in a pool of shadow cast by the streetlamp overhead and checked the silver knife at her hip one more time.  Werewolf senses would find her almost instantly, but that split-second almost should be enough. It would have to be. 

    She was going to make her parents proud. 

    The door creaked open halfway. Grayson Kester, alpha of the Moon’s Edge pack, paused and said something indistinct to someone behind him. His voice was deep and rumbling, full of command, but strangely pleasant. Had he sounded so pleasant when he’d given that fateful order? 

    The width of a door separated Jade from her revenge. 

    It opened the rest of the way, and Grayson stepped into the alley. Jade leapt, knife at the ready, lunging for his heart. But Grayson whirled and caught her wrist effortlessly in his huge hand. Her grey eyes met his red ones. And Jade’s world collapsed as her soul cried out in ecstasy. 

    Grayson Kester, the man who killed her parents, was her fated mate. 

    The focus of this sample is establishing Jade’s character. In the space of about 200 words, we learn that she’s a skilled werewolf hunter, and she’s out for revenge on the man who killed her parents. We learn her Goal (kill Grayson) and her Motivation (revenge) as well as a hint of her backstory (dead parents), but not the whole thing. Jade’s Goal and Motivation are upended when she realizes that Grayson is her fated mate, which kicks off the story (Inciting Incident). Based on what we’ve learned about Jade, we know this is going to be a real struggle for her, which creates interest for the reader. 

    Focus on the action

    What’s happening in the scene? Keep the focus on the present action of the scene, not what has led up to it. Keep the exposition to a minimum–only what is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand what’s happening. 


    The front door of the boarded-up house creaked open with a shuddering groan. Cordelia and Annabeth slipped inside, stifling their nervous giggles in their hands. But their giggles quickly died away. The house reeked of rot. Cobwebs clung to the corners of the room and furniture was overturned, as if someone had been searching for something.

    A portrait hung over the sooty fireplace, of a woman in an elegant gown. Annabeth stepped closer.

    “Annie, be careful,” whispered Cordelia. 

    “Don’t be such a baby,” retorted Annabeth, who was five minutes older than her sister, and never let her forget it. She touched the woman’s face with her fingertips, just to bug Cordelia.

    The dim lighting cast strange shadows on the portrait. “It looks like its eyes are moving,” said Cordelia. 

    “It’s called trompe-l’oeil,” said Annabeth. 


    Annabeth sighed and turned to leave. But before they could cross the threshold, the wall began to rattle. They whirled back to look at the portrait as it began to shake, and noticed for the first time that the frame wasn’t hung on a hook–it was nailed to the wall. And the wall was beginning to come apart, shedding plaster as a hand reached out from the painting, clawing at its frame. 

    In this example, we focus on the action: the sisters breaking into the house, and the painting coming alive. There’s no explanation of how the house came to be abandoned, or who the woman in the painting is, or what Cordelia and Annabeth did earlier that day. The only backstory in this example is the fact that Annabeth is older than Cordelia, and it’s introduced as part of a concrete present interaction between them to give context to their dynamic.  

    Amp up the emotion

    The event you’ve chosen should matter to your protagonist, and we need to see how and why it matters. If the event doesn’t matter, or your protagonist is bored, that’s a sign that you may not have chosen the best inciting incident. When you’re writing, focus on the emotion by using descriptive language to create an emotional experience for your reader. 


    Lacey walked into the cafe, and everything stopped. The sounds of the bustling coffee shop faded away, and all she could hear was her heart pounding. He was dead. She kept the death certificate in a drawer with her lease agreement and passport. Yet there he was, casually scrolling through his phone, sipping an espresso. Antonio. 

    He looked up. When his cool green eyes finally met hers, a wave of electricity pulsed through her and her shock turned into fury. She wanted to scream at him, pound her fists against his chest. She wanted to hold him and never let him go. 

    Antonio rose smoothly and intercepted her as she floated automatically to the cash. He guided her to sit and pressed his lips against her trembling fingers. His breath was so warm on her hand. 

    "Ciao bella,” he said in that silky, famillair voice. He looked at her with a mix of fear and hope. “I need your help."

    In this example, we open with a moment of huge emotional upheaval for our protagonist, Lacey. Someone she cared deeply for and thought was dead is alive, and asking her for help. If we’d opened the story earlier, say the day before, we might get a sense of Lacey’s sadness, but it would be muted, unmoored to any specific present event. If we’d opened later, after Antonio has already reintroduced himself to her, we’d miss out on this big moment of emotional upheaval. This is the moment of maximum emotion at this part of the story, so that’s what we’re focusing on here. We don’t know exactly what the circumstances were that made Lacey believe he was dead, nor exactly what their relationship used to be, but we don’t need to in order to understand her emotions here. The focus on Lacey’s emotion makes it real to the reader, and the inclusion of a couple of relevant, illustrative details (like the fact that she keeps his death certificate) help round out the picture and create a compelling opening. 

    Establish the conflict

    What’s the problem the protagonist is faced with? If that problem originates in the world around them (evil warlord trying to take over the world, murderer on the loose) that’s an external conflict. If the conflict is mostly about how the character feels (like they don’t fit in, that they’ll never love again), that’s an internal conflict. Your story should ideally have a combination of external and internal conflicts, but it’s normal for a story to tilt one way or the other. For example, a mystery can have an internal conflict about how the detective feels burnt out from the job, but the external conflict of solving the murder is more important and drives the plot. Similarly, a rom-com can have an external conflict about the characters having to pretend to date to throw off the tabloids, but the internal conflict about whether the leads can trust themselves and each other enough to fall in love is the main conflict of the story. Your opening chapter should introduce us to the main conflict in the story, which is ideally set in motion by the inciting incident. 


    Alaina straightened her blazer and picked a stray thread off her sleeve before pushing open the glass door to the boardroom. She’d spent the morning in her car lip syncing to Beyoncé and psyching herself up for this meeting, and she walked in with confident steps. 

    Around the table were three white men in near-matching grey suits. None of them were wearing ties, probably to make them seem more down-to-earth and less like the property development vultures they really were. Of course, they were all still wearing their Rolexes. 

    The man closest to her got to his feet. He had stunning blue eyes and a superhero-chiseled jawline. 

    “Ms. Alvarez,” he said, “a pleasure to finally meet you. I’m Jack Carrington, senior counsel.” His hand was warm and dry, his touch firm enough to remember but brief enough to create interest, and he punctuated it all with a stunning megawatt smile. 

    Alaina gave him a smile of her own, full of sharp teeth. “Come on now, Jack,” she said. “Don’t you remember me?”

    And she watched his face fall as he realized he’d walked into negotiations with his high school ex. 

    In this example, we open with the external conflict between the main character Alaina and the property developers. We don’t know exactly what’s going on yet, but we know this meeting is important because Alaina had to psych herself up for it, and we can tell by the way the property developers are described that she doesn’t like them. With the external conflict established, we then encounter a twist at the end that reveals the internal conflict: Alaina and Jack are exes. This changes our understanding of the external conflict, making it feel more intense and personal, and indicates what kind of journey our lead characters are going to go on. 

    Hint at the stakes

    A conflict does not have to be world-shatteringly big to matter (not every story is about the end of the world!), but it does need to matter intensely to the protagonists. The stakes are why the conflict matters to the characters, and thus why it matters to the readers. 


    “C’mon man, come on,” Joe shouted into the back of the restaurant. The line cook finally handed him the takeout bag and Joe grabbed it with one hand, updating the app status with the other: on the move. The delivery app promised 40 minutes or less, and if he got another demerit on his profile he was going to be demoted. Again. 

    The timer changed from orange to red. Joe cursed under his breath as he hurried back out to the car and flung himself into the driver’s seat. As soon as he jammed the key in the ignition, the sound system roared to life at max volume. But instead of his favorite satellite radio dubstep station, it was a deafening rush of static. He cursed and fumbled to turn the volume down as he tried to pull into the street one-handed. But the volume wouldn’t go down. 

    Strike Team Alpha, confirm frequency, said the static. 

    Frequency confirmed, Control. Strike Team Alpha in position. 

    They weren’t words, but they congealed in his mind like language. Joe almost froze in the middle of the intersection. A driver behind him leaned on the horn. Joe had the presence of mind to flip the driver off, but it was almost automatic. 

    Commence Earth invasion strike in t-minus fifteen minutes.

    Well, shit. He was definitely going to miss his delivery window. 

    This example plays with the stakes. We open in a high tension moment for our protagonist, Joe. He’s not sitting around bored and waiting for his delivery, he’s actively trying to get things done faster. The stakes are right up front: he’s going to be late, and it’s going to cost him. This time pressure creates tension in the scene and a sense of frenetic movement that is further amped up by the strange transmission. In a couple of sentences, the stakes escalate  from “late food delivery” to “invasion of earth,” but it works because the tension has been building for the entire scene. And in the very last line, we return to the mundane stakes of Joe’s life (the late delivery) in ways that personalizes the conflict and ties everything together, as well as indicating the story’s tone: funny and a bit irreverent. We’ve set up the stakes, what they mean for the character, and indicated how the story is approaching those stakes, thus indicating what kind of story the reader is in for. 

    Keep it relevant

    Central to the idea of Immediate and Engaging is relevance: making sure you are giving your reader the most important, interesting information about a scene. Every element of your chapter should work together to convey the story to the reader; everything should be relevant to the story you’re trying to tell. While it seems like it should be helpful to the reader, imparting a ton of information can actually impede the reader’s ability to understand what is going on and what the important information in the story is. It’s like a forest: if the trees and underbrush are really dense, a traveler can’t see the path through. We want to make sure the reader can see the path, and part of that is trimming back areas that are too closely packed. 

    Relevance is also about emphasizing what’s important. If something is really important, spend more time on it: describe it more in-depth, give the characters more of a reaction to it, or spend longer in the moment. What you focus on enlarges, so what do you want your reader to think about the most? 

    AVOID exposition and backstory

    Exposition is when you summarize and explain things to the reader, sometimes called “telling.” Telling can be a necessary part of writing when you need to skip over stuff quickly, but it should be used for things that you want the reader to skim over, not linger on. Generally, things you explain through exposition have less impact and emotional resonance for the reader. In the opening chapter, when you’re really trying to hook the reader’s emotions and get them invested in the story, it’s best to avoid exposition or explaining as much as you can, and instead focus on showing the reader a high-impact moment that helps them get invested in the story.  

    Similarly, backstory is everything that happened before the beginning of the story (the Inciting Incident). The history of the world, your protagonist’s childhood, how they came to be where they are, all of that is backstory. Generally, if it comes before the inciting incident, leave it out of the first chapter. You can drop hints or make allusions to backstory events, but don’t give the whole explanation. It’s much more effective to tease your reader with a bit of backstory to create interest. 

    AVOID holding back the hook

    Cliffhangers are a great way to keep your reader engaged, but you have to hook them first. Having your first chapter be build up that cuts off before the hook risks losing your reader. If you want to use a cliffhanger in your first chapter, you can cut the chapter at its most climactic moment, where you’ve introduced the hook but not let the characters react to or process it. Go back over the examples in this module, a lot of them end with a climactic moment that sets the hook but leaves the reader wondering what happens next. 

    Focus on: Avoid:
    Emotion Backstory
    Action Exposition
    Stakes Lead-up
    Relevance Digression

    Your opening chapter should answer the questions What, Who, How + Why.
    These are the big questions that drive your story and create reader engagement.

    Download our worksheet, "What, Who, How, and Why", created to help you make your story immediate.

    Long curving line Long curving line Long curving line