Billions of human beings now have a rectangle in their pocket that can access near infinite amounts of video, images, games, news, forums, blogs, and feline-based gifs. This being the case, you should ask yourself why—in the holy name of Google!—any of them should bother sitting down to read your book. Is it really that good, that interesting, that special?
If you’ve done your job well, then sure, maybe it is. Maybe the prose is exquisite, the character arcs are profound, and the ending is even more satisfying than watching kittens play with yarn. But none of that matters unless you can get your reader to keep turning pages. More than ever before, authors have to find a way to hook their readers starting on page one.
Your beginning needs to be better than youtube.
Unless your book starts with the dawn of time (and some books do, I hear the “Bible” has sold pretty well) you’re going to be dropping the reader somewhere into a story that has already been happening. Your characters were born, grew up, had experiences, and have come to a point in their lives where something interesting is about to happen. As the author, these are events you need to know. But most readers aren’t going to want to begin with a deluge of backstory. It doesn’t mean you have to make things explode on page one, but it does mean you should pick your starting point with care.
A general rule you’ll hear is “In late, out early”. Basically, throw us into the story just when things are getting interesting, and take us out before they get boring again. Play around with the timing. What happens if you start one day before the inciting incident? What if it’s one week? Or just five minutes? How does this change the feel of the opening?
Authors tend to stress over the first line of a story. The opening line is the first promise to the reader, the first impression, and the first sales pitch. It truly is a big deal, but it usually isn’t going to be the first thing you write. Sometimes an author will come up with a clever opening line and build their story from there, but more often you’ll write the entire story and then come back to polish the beginning. So don’t worry too much about it in your first draft.
But when it is time to finalize that first line, take it seriously. The first line doesn’t necessarily have to be some monumental life-changing sentence, but it should never be lackluster. At the very least, make it a clear and interesting sentence which evokes something in the reader: emotion, tone, expectation, etc.
Memorable opening lines often combine something familiar with something strange. For example, George Orwell’s “1984” opens with: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Sometimes the first line is a powerful image, a humorous zinger, a bit of profound or surprising dialogue, or a pithy and thought-provoking phrase.
I have a little ritual when coming up with the first line in a book. I walk down to the bookstore, find the genre section I’m writing in, then squat down on the carpet and start pulling books off the shelves. I read hundreds and hundreds of opening lines. Most are fine, a few are particularly weak, and some are truly extraordinary. I take snapshots on my phone of my favorites. I look for lines that stick in my brain, which make me go “ooh wow” or “wtf!” or laugh out loud. After an hour of reading, I almost always have half a dozen ideas for my own opening line. If you’re stuck on the first line, consider trying this technique.
Now we move onto the first chunk of your story. In flash fiction, this might just be a paragraph. In short stories, it’s maybe a page or a scene. And in novels, it’s typically a chapter. We’re talking about the reader’s introduction to the world, the story, and the characters.
You want to establish tone early on. The reader should quickly discover how this story is going to make them feel. If your book is very serious, it should probably start serious. If it’s full of jokes, there should be jokes from the start. It’s fine to sometimes subvert reader expectations, but if you promise the reader early on that they’re embarking on a particular story journey, then lead them somewhere completely different, you’re going to have a lot of readers putting down the book halfway through and leaving angry reviews.
It’s also important to establish setting at the start. Readers need context in terms of the time and place of the story. This doesn’t mean spending pages and pages on description—don’t do that—but it means simply and effectively letting them know where and when the story is taking place.
It goes without saying that your opening also has to establish character. Who is your protagonist/POV character? What is it about them that will make a reader want to spend time with them? What do they care about? The answer to that question should inform the reader about what’s important to the story. What are their strengths and weaknesses? This is particularly important, as their qualities will affect the decisions they make and the solutions they come up with. By showing them dealing with, or not dealing with, simple problems in their daily life, the reader has a baseline to judge how they’ll act under pressure later on.
Make Something Happen
Perhaps the most important thing authors need to remember when writing beginnings: something must be happening! There is no better way to bore a reader to death than to open a story at a stagnant point where boring characters aren’t doing anything of importance, where nothing is changing, where nothing is at risk.
You don’t have to begin with the major conflict of your plot, but you must give the reader something to care about.
Consider the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”. The grand inciting incident of that story is, of course, the tornado whisking Dorothy out of her world and setting her down in Oz, but that’s not the first conflict in the movie. Instead, it opens on Dorothy running down the road. Her dog Toto has bitten their cruel neighbor Almira Gulch, and now Miss Gulch wants Toto to be euthanized. Immediately, we sympathize for Dorothy and want to know what happens next. We’re introduced to the themes of cruel villains, running away, of heart-breaking consequences. If instead, the story simply opened with Dorothy coming home from school, making a snack, checking on the chickens, hearing a distant storm, feeding Toto...*SNORE* Oh! Sorry. I fell asleep writing that. So boring!
Nobody wants to sit through tedium waiting for something interesting to happen, so make it interesting from page one.
To Prologue, or Not to Prologue
Some novels, particularly in epic fantasy, will use a prologue. These can get a bad rap, usually for being cliche, and though a prologue should only be written if it genuinely adds to the story, they can be quite effective.
Remember how you need to establish tone and conflict early on? A prologue could be the tool to do that. Let’s say your story is epic and dark and involves lots of magic, but your first few chapters don’t include much of that stuff. They’re mainly about introducing characters and slowly revealing more of the world. How do you give readers a glimpse of what’s to come? If you’re George R.R. Martin writing “Game of Thrones”, you do it with a prologue.
Martin begins the first volume of his epic series with a prologue wherein minor characters explore a creepy setting and bump into some ice zombies. It’s spooky, intense, and makes the reader want to turn the page. When chapter 1 begins, we meet the major characters and learn about their personal conflicts, relationships, politics, etc, but the whole time we’re eager and excited knowing that eventually all that craziness and magic from the prologue will rush back into the story.
(Know that a prologue isn’t the only way to accomplish this. Think Indiana Jones or James Bond. Each of those movies begins with a quick action scene, then goes into the character’s normal life, then back into action for the main plot.)
So, the story opens. Characters are doing some stuff. There’s a setting. There’s a tone. And then…
Something big changes, something that can’t be ignored, and your protagonist makes a choice to step out the door.
This is where your story really takes off, and whether it comes on page one or page fifty is up to you. Typically readers want a little time to know the world and the characters first (after all, Oz would hardly seem as magical if we didn’t first spend time in boring old Kansas, no offense Kansans), but if you wait too long the reader will lose interest. If you’re 40,000 words into a 100,000-word novel about an adventure on the moon, but your characters still haven’t even boarded a rocket, you’ve got a problem.
My advice: go big with your inciting incident. Have a body fall out of the closet, a meteor fall out of the sky, blow something up, break someone down. Treat it as a challenge to yourself: start big and then go bigger. Obviously, the scope of your inciting incident will depend on the type of story you’re telling, but don’t save all the good stuff for the end. After all, the only way to make the reader reach that end is to wow them early on, and then every step of the way after.
Some Final Tips
For some reason, we authors have a habit of starting a little too soon.
It might sound crazy, but one way to try strengthening the start of a book—or a scene or chapter—is to simply chop off its very beginning. Experiment by cutting the first line, the first paragraph, or even the first chapter. See what this does to your story. You might be surprised how much it can help.
And don’t let your opening be quicksand! If you’re feeling stuck, move on. You can always come back and clean up later, but if you never finish that first draft, then your book simply isn’t going to happen.