Wanna hook readers fast and make ’em beg for more? (Of course you, do. Me, too).
Then quit the long-winded intros and kick off your tale with a compelling cold open scene.
What is a cold open in writing?
Here Is What a Cold Open Is in Writing:
A cold open refers to how a story starts by immediately throwing the reader into the action or intrigue of the scene. The opposite is a more gradual, slow-burn kind of opening. The key defining quality of a cold open is that it starts right at the first moment where something gripping is happening.
In a classic old open, there is no building up of context beforehand.
For example, a story may open directly with the main character running from pursuers, discovering a dead body, receiving an urgent message, walking into a trap, overhearing a secret conspiracy, getting news that upends their world, etc.
There is no prefatory explanation to set the scene.
Readers dive straight into significant story events and details that raise questions and interest them in finding out more.
An effective cold open drops readers abruptly into tense, mysterious, high-stakes or confusing moments that make them want to keep reading to understand the full context.
It builds immediate curiosity and intrigue before any backstory or introductions are provided.
The idea is to make an opening scene intense, vivid and compelling enough that readers are hooked and motivated to continue reading in order to make sense of why the events are happening and what their wider meaning or consequences may be.
Types of Cold Opens in Writing
There are many types of cold opens authors can utilize to immediately hook their audience:
- Action – Opens with the main character already caught in a tense, dramatic event. E.g. being chased, fighting an enemy, trapped in a dangerous situation.
- Mystery – Introduces an intriguing, perplexing event upfront. E.g. a murder, strange message, baffling question.
- Emotion – Starts by showing a moment of high emotion or inner turmoil. E.g grief, anger, panic, trauma, joy.
- Dialogue – Jumps right into the middle of a heated argument, conversation or confrontation.
- Atmosphere – Evokes a strong sense of foreboding, creepiness or tension through descriptive setting details.
- Cliffhanger – Raises a major unanswered question and cuts off before revealing more.
- Disorientation – Plunges the reader into an unfamiliar, confusing situation.
- High Stakes – Opens by revealing extremely urgent, pressing stakes.
- Ominous – Hints that something bad is coming through ominous signs, predictions.
- Media Res – Starts in the middle of an ongoing event without context.
11 Elements of a Cold Open in Writing
There are at least 11 elements that go into a cold open.
Over the years, I’ve developed my own ideas about what makes a really good cold open. Here is what I believe–I hope it helps!
The hook grabs readers’ attention right away by presenting an intriguing opening line or situation that makes them want to find out more. For example: I never expected to see a spaceship crash land in the field behind my house, but when I ran outside to investigate, there it was: a silver flying saucer with an alien pilot trying to crawl from the wreckage.
Raising questions sparks readers’ curiosity by introducing something mysterious, confusing or unexpected that compels them to keep reading to uncover the answers. For example: The coded message arrived in my inbox this morning with no sender details or explanation. All it said was: “She is still alive. Do not trust anyone. Wait for my signal.” Who sent this and what did it mean?
Brief scene setting grounds readers in a vivid location, time period or situation, providing just enough context to make the opening events and characters feel real. For example: The dark streets of 1850s London were shrouded in a thick, greasy fog as I hurried toward the dockyards, hoping I could intercept the shipment before it fell into the wrong hands.
Introducing key characters upfront establishes motivation and stakes, making readers invested in their journey.
For example: As a tired single mother working two jobs, I never expected to stumble onto a conspiracy that would bring the most powerful tech mogul in the world to his knees. But now my daughter’s life depended on bringing him down.
The inciting incident sparks the chain of events driving the story into motion.
For example: The king’s sudden death without an heir threw the kingdom into chaos as opposing factions vied for control of the empty throne.
Strategic backstory details provide necessary context for readers to understand character motivations and story stakes.
For example: Ever since my little sister disappeared when we were children, I’ve been obsessed with unsolved missing persons cases. So when I saw the resemblance between the police sketch and mom’s new boyfriend, alarm bells went off…
Early conflict sets up the central tension that will drive events throughout the story.
For example: As the new sheriff in town, I expected resistance from the local outlaw gang. But finding a death threat nailed to my door on the first night marked an ominous start to the job.
Creative foreshadowing hints at future plot points or twists, building a sense of anticipation.
For example: As we set up camp that night, an old fortune teller wandered into our midst, pointing one gnarled finger at me to rasp “Turn back now before it’s too late…” Then she vanished into the darkness.
Tone-setting description creates the desired creepy, lighthearted or emotional mood that will permeate the story. For example: Shadows danced across the crumbling asylum walls as we approached, hoping to contact the ghost of the nurse who reportedly still haunted these halls long after her grisly demise…
Showing readers what hangs in the balance makes them invested in the outcome.
For example: With only seconds left before the lab results were permanently deleted, I had one chance to guess the correct password and retrieve the cure data – or else wave goodbye to saving my son.
Leaving readers on a “narrative cliffhanger” builds anticipation to keep reading.
For example: As the cloaked figure stepped from the swirling portal, I caught a glimpse of claws and fangs before they rasped: “Take me to your leader!” Then everything went black.
Here is a good video about how to write a cold open:
10 Examples of Cold Opens in Writing
Let’s now look at made up examples of cold opens in writing.
We’re going to go through different genres to show you how this process can work in any story.
Fantasy Cold Open
As the young wizard’s apprentice, I never expected to take on a dangerous quest alone.
But when Master Talen failed to return from the Misty Mountains, I knew something terrible had happened. Grabbing only my novice spellbook and enchanted amulet, I saddled the two horses and set off into the gloomy peaks, determined to find the wise old sorcerer – or avenge his death. Bandits, bloodthirsty beasts and worse lay ahead.
Yet I could not turn back now with Master Talen’s fate and all he had taught me at stake.
Mystery Cold Open
The envelope simply appeared one morning on my office desk with no stamps, postmarks or return address.
The cryptic note inside read: “Heed this warning and call off the investigation if you value your life. Some things are better left buried.” Threats from powerful people came with the territory as an investigative journalist. But how did this unknown sender slip past security to deliver it? The cameras caught nothing. It seemed I had stumbled onto a story more dangerous than I realized.
But the question remained – what were they so desperate to hide?
Romance Cold Open
Jesse was running late as usual when he collided with a woman rounding the corner, sending her flying into a massive muddy puddle.
Mortified, he reached out to help her up, sputtering apologies – until their eyes locked. There was an instant spark of connection as he grabbed her hand, that lasted even after he awkwardly let go. “Sorry, I didn’t meant to…here let me pay for dry cleaning. I’m Jesse by the way,” he offered, blushing.
She laughed it off, blonde curls bouncing as she replied “I’m Kate. Nice to literally run into you.” Both sensed this was an encounter they wouldn’t forget anytime soon.
Sci-Fi Cold Open
The alert from my spaceship’s computer jolted me awake – a distress signal was emanating from a nearby moon.
This far out on the Andromeda fringe worlds, I knew any signal likely meant bad news. Slipping into my flight suit, I quickly fired up my ship’s engines and plotted a course toward the unknown moon, my pulse racing. This was my first real rescue mission since graduating from the Academy. And if there were any survivors down there, I was their only hope. Guiding my craft into the atmosphere, I spotted the remains of a crash site below.
Time to find out what happened here – and who or what I might encounter on this uncharted alien world.
Horror Cold Open
We shouldn’t have returned to the abandoned summer camp.
But we couldn’t resist one last party trip before graduation, fueled by alcohol and nostalgia. Sneaking through the sagging gate at midnight, my friends laughed as I hesitated, staring up at the ghostly cabins. “Don’t freak out on us,” they teased. I tried to smile, hiding my unease. But I couldn’t ignore the creeping sensation that we were being watched from the woods.
Or shake memories of the campfire tales about murders that happened here long ago… As the moon slipped behind clouds, darkness swallowed us. Then came an inhuman shriek from close behind that curdled my blood.
Historical Fiction Cold Open
As I hurried toward the Harbor through the tense streets of 1770s Boston, I clutched my cloak tightly against the midnight chill.
Few lights shone from house windows; respectable colonists wisely stayed hidden these days. Not with angry redcoat patrols about and whispers of rebellion in the air since the hated Stamp Act passed. I could barely make out the silent Sons of Liberty captain waiting for me by the docks to receive the secret cargo of tea for dumping into the harbor in defiance of the British taxes.
This cloak and dagger business was new to a respectable tradesman like myself. But desperate times called for risky measures if we held any hope of protecting our freedoms.
Dystopian Cold Open
I woke coughing, the acrid smoke from the factory stacks once again permeating our sleeping quarters. Wrapping a rag around my mouth, I quickly dressed and reported for my shift patrolling the barricade against the Outliers.
Orders were shoot to kill any who approached from the barren wastelands. Once, I might have pitied them, starving and sick. But that was before the rebellion that cost my whole family their lives. The totalitarian Regime reminded us daily we had only them to thank for food, shelter and order amidst the chaos beyond the walls. As long as we followers obeyed, life was manageable.
I would never betray the benevolent Authority that cared for us. All dissenters had to pay the price for violence against our oasis of stability – no matter what it cost my soul.
Comedy Cold Open
When my half-crazed Uncle Leo went on a rant over Christmas dinner about his new self-help book awakening latent mind powers, the family all smiled politely then went back to our meal.
All except my 13-year old brother Timmy who piped up, “So if mind powers are real now, can I use them get out of chores or mess with my annoying teacher’s voice?” Next thing we knew Uncle Leo grabbed Timmy’s head and did some vigorous rubbing while muttering strange words to “activate his mental abilities.”
Nothing seemed to happen until two hours later when Timmy stared intently at the Brussels sprouts dish and Mom shrieked as it flew off the table.
Crime Cold Open
I should have known better than to stop on that deserted stretch of highway to check the map at midnight. But the detour signs at the construction zone had confused me until I took the wrong turn toward the abandoned town the travel guide warned against visiting.
Just typical for my luck. When the isolation started creeping me out, I turned the key again only to have my car sputter lifeless instead, the gas tank somehow bone dry already. Climbing out, I reached for my phone to call for a tow truck – which flashed zero signal.
By then, peering through the darkness, I could make out the flickering lights of many silent figures emerging from dilapidated buildings all around approaching slowly. Escape on foot seemed to be my only option now.
Action/Adventure Cold Open
Call me crazy, but when the treasure hunting reality show announced open auditions for “adventure-seeking risk takers,” I couldn’t resist throwing my name on the list. Maybe it was a long-buried desire to be bold instead of playing it safe at my boring office job.
Or just wanting to prove I could handle jungle treks and ancient booby traps with the best of them. Either way, when I got that call offering a spot on the expedition to uncover Montezuma’s lost fortune, biology papers and press releases got shelved so I could pack my bags. Sure this was outside my comfort zone.
But watching that rickety cargo plane disappear as I plunged from 12,000 feet with 5 strangers to find treasure in the remote Mexican wilderness told me I was in for a ride I’d never forget – however it turned out.
Final Thoughts: What Is a Cold Open in Writing?
And that’s a wrap! Whether starting stories slow or cold, the beginning makes all the difference in hooking those readers.
So take the plunge into the action and let imagination run wild right from line one.
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