Since this is my first blog post, let’s start at the beginning. As in chapter 1, page 1, line 1. I don’t have to lecture aspiring authors on the importance of crafting a beginning so juicy prospective agents will be salivating at the thought of reading your full. No, the advice to write a phenomenal opening is probably second only to “show vs tell” in writing books and blogs.
Knowing what to do is the easy part. Knowing how… not so much.
So what makes a good beginning? A lot, actually. Especially for modern tastes, which demand that a good opening:
- Immediately hook the reader
- Establish mood, tone, and voice
- Give a working sense of time and place
- Introduce an interesting (and hopefully main) character
- Inject tension and conflict into the scene
- Drive a burning question so deep in the reader’s mind, they just have to turn that page
Not asking much, are they?
How soon must you deliver on these reader expectations? The first paragraph? The first page? The first chapter? The irritatingly vague answer is: as soon as possible. It really does depend though. It depends on your genre, your writing style, the needs of the story… the list goes on.
Some good news though: if you can at least pique reader interest with a strong voice or an original concept (based on your letter when querying or the book jacket when published), you’ll be given a little breathing room. Nevertheless, the sooner the better.
Daunting though it may seem, crafting a workhorse opening that checks off the aforementioned boxes is possible. An excellent example can be found in the first 150 words of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (excluding its single page prologue):
The first thing you should know about me is I am my father’s son. And when they came for him, I did as he asked. I did not cry. Not when the Society televised his arrest. Not when the Golds tried him. Not when the Grays hanged him. Mother hit me for that. My brother Kieran was supposed to be the stoic one. He was the elder, I the younger. I was supposed to cry. Instead, Kieran bawled like a girl when little Eo tucked a haemanthus into Father’s left workboot and ran back to her own father’s side. My sister Leanna murmured a lament beside me. I just watched and thought it a shame that he died dancing but without his dancing shoes.
On Mars there is not much gravity. So you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.
Wow. Let’s snap on some gloves and dissect that, shall we?
If the reader didn’t already know from the book jacket, this opening firmly establishes the genre as science fiction. Since Mars is the setting, the time can be inferred as somewhere in a technologically-advanced future.
Immediately, we’re introduced to a character we want to spend more time with. Though we don’t know his name, we already know something of the narrator’s traits and motivations. Family and duty must be powerful drives for him; of all the details he could have shared about himself, he chose to first highlight the connection to the father he lost, and how he honored his father’s memory and wishes to his own detriment. This is a character who will sacrifice himself for what and who he loves.
Conflict and tension are foreshadowed. What a cold, unforgiving world it must be if its people shoulder the burden of breaking the necks of those they love. Also, there’s something heart-breaking about the narrator’s reaction; we realize (if only subconsciously) that death is a familiar presence in his life.
We also learn something of this society’s hierarchy, which will become a critical part of the main conflict. However, at this point, the details of that complex hierarchy are not explained— they’re only hinted at. It’s this restraint from info-dumping that incite questions in the reader’s mind.
More. Now we want to know more. Who are the Golds? Who are the Grays? Why was his father sentenced to hang? These questions keep us turning pages. In the opening pages, tease them, tantalize them, but never give them more than what’s needed for clarity and context. That’s why so many books and blogs warn writers against info-dumping. Don’t give answers before the reader has had time to form the questions.
For those unfamiliar with Red Rising, I highly recommend it. The rest of the book is just as good as its opening.
A few other tips on openings:
(These are by no means original— I’m merely summarizing key points of well-tread advice from writers much more skilled than I)
- Please, please (pretty please) don’t open with multiple lines of dialogue. There are many successful books that have done this. I don’t care. Don’t waste those first, precious lines on disembodied voices. If I don’t have characters or context to latch on to, my eyes skim to the first chunk of text that can orient me to what the hell is going on. Don’t do that to your reader. Confusion incites the wrong kinds of questions.
- No long-winded description of setting. Again, dozens of best-selling novels have done this. However, they were successful in spite of, not because of those trite, flowery descriptions of a sunset. Trust your reader to orient themselves given the bare minimum, and they’ll trust you to fill in the details later.
- Whenever possible, avoid opening your novel with a focus on anyone other than your main character (am I being redundant to point out this is done all the time? Sci-fi and fantasy seem to be the worst culprits. Yes, I know Harry Potter did it. Yes, that book made billions of dollars. Yes, you should probably write my advice off as the ramblings of a random writing blogger). Stories only resonate when readers create a connection to a character. Starting with someone other than the protagonist only serves to delay that connection. Can it work? Of course. But remember: when that connection is delayed, you risk losing reader interest. *BUT: no matter who you start with, DO NOT waste your reader’s time and emotional investment starting with a character who won’t even be part of the story.*
If you’re looking for more in-depth guidance on crafting a killer opening, I highly recommend reading chapter two of Steven James’s Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules (2014).
Actually, I recommend that entire book. If you’re serious about writing, stop reading this blog and go check out that book.
Do it now.
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