Five Things to Keep in Mind for a Great Opening
Original image via Tim Mossholder
Without a great hook, a boxer will never be a champion. Without a great hook, your narrative won’t grab readers from the start, and you run the risk of them bailing on your story. Trust me, they have plenty of books on their TBR pile, and if you don’t get them hooked from the start, some of them will opt to close your book and move away from it. That’s why we’re talking about beginnings today. Yes, I’m aware of how hard they are. I’ve been staring at that blinking cursor on a blank page for as long as you have. That said, understanding what your beginning needs to accomplish might help you get things right…or at least it might help you get started.
In September I gave a workshop at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop that focused on getting the opening pages right, so I spent an inordinate amount of time reading novel openings and thinking about what worked for me and what didn’t. The first thing that should be clear to you is that the start of your novel must do a lot more than set the scene or introduce readers to a character; it must hook readers enough to keep them reading. There are as many different stories as there are writers out there, and things often vary because of genre and personal preferences, so I tried to put together some general advice that might help you regardless of those things. So here are five things you should keep in mind when you’re starting your book:
Pacing is everything
I mean it. Even if you’re writing a cozy mystery or a Southern Gothic, pacing is everything during those first pages. Give your readers something to dig their teeth into. Long-winded descriptions don’t usually do it for most readers. Yes, I said most, so no need to comment about how you absolutely love descriptions that would make classic Russian authors yawn. While genre is a marketing thing and shouldn’t affect what you put on the page, you should at least be aware that pulp, noir, adventure, action, thriller, and horror readers, to name a few, have certain expectations when they crack open your book. Also, try to keep in mind the end result. If you have a solid 350 pages, you can add a few elements or throw in a few things that mess with the pacing but enrich the story. If you wrote a 90-page novella, you don’t have a line to waste.
You have to be more exciting than everything else
The start of your book has to compete with everything else out there. Sports. Netflix. Hulu. Prime. Family. Significant others. Pets. Naps. Walks. Facebook. Twitter. They are all there, pulling at your readers’ attention. You have to make them forget all of it. Start with a bang. If you want to call it an inciting incident, go for it. If you want to call it an explosion, good for you. Regardless of the name, your opening graphs needs to grab the reader by the neck, slam them against the wall, and say “I’m here and you’re mine now!”
Oh, that first paragraph…
It’s hard, I know. Trust me, I know. That said, you need to focus on it. Rewrite it. Obsess about it. After judging the Shirley Jackson Awards, the Splatterpunk Awards, the Newfound Prose Prize, and a few others things, I can tell you one thing for sure: judges won’t give you 30 pages to get going and grab their attention, and grabbing their attention starts with the opening paragraph. The same goes for all readers. Some will give you 25 pages and some will give you three, but you don’t want to find out how many they will read before giving up on your work. What you want is for them to sit up and go “Daaaaaaamn!” and keep reading. Something should happen. Readers should be enticed, shocked, worried, unsettled, or curious, but they need to feel something in that first paragraph.
Voice and atmosphere
I teach entire weeks on voice, and atmosphere is that magical thing no one can really explain until they see it, and your opening should have both. I need to get a sense of your voice or of your character(s) voice(s). I also need to get a sense of atmosphere. That first chapter should let me know if the book is going to be happy, sexy, creepy, dark, depressing, explosive, whatever. You have to pack the essence of your narrative into that opening. If you have an opening that only gives backstory, kill it. You’ve probably heard about getting rid of the first chapter, and I agree with that, only if that first chapter isn’t where your story start. Sometimes we need a bit of a running start, but there’s no reason to show it to readers. If your start is weaker than your second chapter, your second chapter should be the first thing people read when they crack open your book.
You can start your narrative with “I love you” or you can start it with “Fuck you.” Both work, but you should have clear reasons for why you used either of them. Choose your language carefully. I don’t care about your dark and stormy nights; I care about what happens to people on those nights. Writing is about picking the best words to tell a story, and this is especially important at the start. If you go back and read the previous point, you’ll understand how important language is. The opening line can set the hooks in. The opening paragraph can dictate the atmosphere. The first page can give us a powerful first impression of your character(s). What element do all those share? Yup, language. It’s easy to forget a weak line on the third paragraph of page 77, but it’s hard to forget a weak first paragraph.
Okay, now go write.
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