First impressions are the most lasting.
One of the most important decisions you make as a comic script writer is how you open your story. As the proverb says, it’s all about first impressions… Your opening is your opportunity to sell the book—figuratively and literally.
The minute a reader opens your book, the countdown begins and in today’s market there are no second chances.
You may be wondering just how long you have to make the sale? How many pages are considered “the opening”? Many would argue the first page alone. While there’s definitely merit to that train of thought and no one will argue the first page has tremendous weight, I’m more inclined to say the first scene.
I say the first scene because from a story standpoint, the scene is a coherrent thought… a mini-story if you will.
You can get a snap first impression from a single panel of art, but beyond assessing style and voice of copy within the panel, story is too complex for such an impression.
The first impression of a writer’s ability isn’t “complete” until you’ve chewed on at least one full scene.
That said, notice I said “countdown begins”.
The second someone grabs a comic a countdown of their attention span starts counting down. How far said person gets into the first scene completely varies from person to person. For this reason, you not only have to have a strong, stand out opening scene, but it has to fulfill a very specific goal that really has little to do with the story itself:
#1) Get in the Right Mindset.
It’s about Selling not Telling.
Many writers make the mistake of thinking of an opening scene as a means to launch their story. Of course it has to do this, but more so (and that’s the rub), it has to SELL THE STORY.
Plain and simple the opening scene is a sales pitch. (Yeah I don’t like sales either, but it is, what it is.)
It’s the writers way of saying, “You looking for a story? I’ve got what you need right here. Check this out…”
Of course, if someone already knows your book or work, they’re likely to sit through whatever opening scene you throw out there—forget about those folks.
Instead, focus your opening scene on CONVINCING the people who don’t know anything about you, or the work. In fact, make your target audience people who don’t have any idea what they’re about to pick up and read.
That’s right, when you write your opening scene ask yourself, “How can I write this so even people without a single expectation can’t turn away?”
With a very wide brushstroke—however you approach it, don’t be nonchalant… swing for the fences.
Now let’s get a bit more specific:
#2) Put a HOOK on that line.
I’m not talking about the hook of your story as in—the unique aspect of the premise that makes it standout as a concept.
I’m talking about the hook as in—engaging the audience.
This means the material must get the reader’s attention, generate curiosity and leave them interested in knowing more.
All story development (introducing characters, establishing plot, inciting incidents, backstory, etc.) must take a backseat to setting your hook. That’s the primary purpose of your opening scene. After all, if the audience doesn’t stick around to read the rest, it doesn’t matter how great your masterpiece is.
Ultimately, hooking your readers means creating questions they absolutely must have answered.
At the latest, you MUST establish this question(s) by the end of the opening scene. And going back to our countdown clock, you need to make damn sure the reader sticks around to get to them.
Checking your opening scene for its hook is fairly easy.
Read the first page and put down the script. Is there a clear question you need to know the answer to?
Don’t look for questions. Anybody can FIND a question.
“Hmmm I wonder why it’s daytime.”
“Is this NYC I’m looking at or Chicago?”
“Is this character the main character of the story?”
If your readers have to find a question to stay engaged you’re sunk.
Some examples of clear questions in an opening scene (off the top of my head):
An exterior city scene with bodies falling from the sky. A guy looks up and says, “holy crap.” as his face falls into shadow. This is a question the reader needs answered.
An interior scene of a girl shooting zombies, as her boyfriend barricades the door. The boyfriend in a state of complete panic asks the girl how many bullets she has left. Another clear question.
Of course these two examples are superficial—on the surface examples leading to immediate answers (unless the writer juggles the narrative, creating a cliffhanger—which can be perfectly acceptable). You can also put forth a clear question within the subtext or at a deeper level.
For example, suppose you open on a robbery in a pharmaceutical company. One of the characters mentions someone is going to die if they don’t get these pills to them. Assuming you build an interest to this someone, the reader now wants to know if the pills are actually going to make it to them in time. A hook that spans an entire issue is most effective.
I’ve got more on hooks over in “Engaging the Reader in 22 Pages”.
The most effective sales pitches aren’t monologues… they’re dialogues.
You give a little to get a little.
Since a reader can’t communicate to you, you have to take the initiative and answer their questions before they ask.
You do this by making some promises in your opening scene-show people what they’re buying. “Ok, let me show you what this story is about. And I promise you, what you see is what you’re going to get.”
Set the tone and style.
Tone and style generally stay consistent through a story. You don’t start off naratting like Ben Grimm with a lot of NYC slang, then end up with sweeping captions from Leo Tolstoy.
Define the genre.
Genre conventions are powerful tools, only an amateur writer disregards them. Define the genre in the opening scene and let the reader start doing some of the heavy lifting by looking for the patterns associated with genre.
Make your promises of the climax and ending.
Did you ever open a book and read the last page to see what happens? Or when you read a novel sleeve, do you notice yourself paying more attention towards the bottom, where it hints towards where the story goes?
The climax and ending are the payoff of the story.
If they’re weak, the entire experience falls flat. Assuming your climax and ending are worth sticking around to see, give the reader an idea of what they’re in for.
Giving some insight into the climax and ending are really another type of hook.
Imagine the opening of a Kaiju comic, where someone speaking at the U.N. says something like “If we unite every military unit of every nation under one command, we may have the chance to stop this monster in NYC–though the devastation would be immeasurable. While we hope we have a plan b in time, assets are already being deployed.” Now that sounds like a fight I want to stick around to see!
#4) Conflict and Tension are Key
Conflict and Tension are two cornerstones to the opening scene.
“Conflict = Opposition.
Tension = Heightened emotional state from an immediate danger or threat.”
When you have a scene of low conflict and low tension, the eye and mind have time to wander. In contrast, Conflict and Tension demand attention.
Openings that rely on other dramatic devices besides conflict and tension tend to need more development.
While it’s possible to pull it off, especially when focusing on the four essential elements of every comic panel (covered in the book), with that countdown ticking away, conflict and tension are your most efficient friends.
#5) Define the theme.
This really falls into tip #3: “promises”, but if you guys know me by now, you know any chance I get to stress theme—I take.
The theme is your message of the story.
While you may build to your message—delivering it at an opportune time with maximum impact and effect—getting it out in some fashion in the opening scene further completes your first impression.
If your theme comes on a turn or reveal, try hinting to it in the opening scene. A little theme in the opening is better than no theme at all.
No matter what panel or page count you believe you have to grab the reader, we all agree the time to make the impression is limited.
The key is potent efficiency.
A stand out tool for expressing a tremendous amount of information quickly is through symbolism.
Now, I’m not talking subtle symbolism. Which is great to work into a story, but not for an opening scene.
For example, for this crime noir horror story I’m working on, I wouldn’t want to open up with a standard looking crime scene and in the background on a shelf have a bunch of books, with a predominant pentagram on one of them.
“Hey what do you mean you didn’t know this was going to be a supernatural story—didn’t you see that pentagram on page one?”
You want to hit the reader over the head leaving nothing to the imagination.
Instead of that pentagram on a book in the corner, push it front and center… show it in blood… with a dismembered body inside it… maybe on a full page.
Or if I was going to use clocks in the piece to represent some theme of time, I might have the detective pick up a clock covered blood. Devote a frame to it. Maybe it’s covered in blood, used as the murder weapon?
In the opening scene, use symbols boldly and send the message home.
#7) Focus on the Transition Out of the first scene.
The completion of the first impression doesn’t come at the last panel of our mini-story that is scene one—it actually comes a smidge later, on the first transition into scene two.
Although technically you could argue the first transition is really another first impression, as it’s the first time we’re seeing the writer make use of it… Whatever you call it, fact remains it’s an opportunity to show you’re capable of moving from one scene to another creatively. Don’t waste it.
Pay attention to the transition out of scene one.
And pay attention to how the second scene plays off of the first. If you’re lucky enough to get a reader to read into your second scene, you want them to work together to finalize your sales pitch.
Think of the the dynamic between the first and second scene as your final, hail mary pass to get your reader to sign on the dotted line. Usually, this means contrasting the feel and pace of the opening scene. But whatever approach you take, make it count.
Bonus tip: First and Last Image
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The very first page, but more specifically, the very first image you see does have a first impression on you—and in a sense affects everything that follows.
In this same vein, the very last page—or image—we see carries a tremendous amount of weight.
You might think separated by 12, 22, 134 pages (or more), these two images have nothing to do with each other. Though you might set them up in this fashion, really, nothing could be further than the truth.
The first and last images are your bookends to the story and together they have a very powerful and meaningful dichotomy.
Because there’s a lot of meat on this one, I’m going to save the explanation of this tip for another article. And for now, just leave it as something for you to think on.
Don’t focus your opening scene on setup of your story, leave that for the first act.
Yeah, the opening scene is part of the first act, but if you use it to setup the story and not everything we just discussed, you’re totally wasting your heavy weaponry.
It’s like using a bazooka to shoot a rabbit, leaving you a sling-shot to take down the dinosaur. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.
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