Ciao, SEers. I’ve got three posts left this year, so I thought it would be a good idea to write a post trilogy. What story terms break into threes better than beginnings, middles, and endings? None I could think of. So today, we’re discussing beginnings.
You see an eye-catching cover and click on the link or pull it from the shelf. You read the back-cover copy; the blurb has everything you want in a novel—a passionate couple, a precarious situation, a tantalizing mystery to solve. Just before you decide to buy it, you take a peek at the first page.
Instead of reading a meet-cute or plunging into the action, you find a description of the weather and pages of backstory.
Thank God you saved your money.
No, this doesn’t necessarily mean the book is bad. In fact, twenty pages in, you might strike literary gold. But will you ever get there? I mean, the laundry is piling up, the dogs need walking, and you’re in the middle of a wicked good series on Netflix that will take all weekend to binge-watch. Are you going to slog your way through purple prose when you have other pressing or compelling options to choose from?
I wouldn’t. I haven’t.
Beginnings are important. There’s truth to the old adage that you can only make a first impression once. Might as well make a good one, or that reader/writer relationship will never get off the ground.
What Your Opening Needs
You don’t have many words to capture an audience. No pressure, but a killer first sentence will go a long way in getting your readers to continue far enough to learn some important details. These are things your opening pages must do, such as:
- Introduce the main characters
- Define the status quo
- Present the challenge
- Establish the tone
Yep, we’re talking about a hook (there’s that four-letter word again) and then reeling your readers in.
Your hook can be that amazing first line or it could be the inciting incident that keeps readers turning the pages. If it’s the latter, the sooner readers get to it, the more likely they are to keep reading.
Main Character Introduction
Readers need to meet the POV character(s) as soon as possible. Page one. Paragraph one. Word one.
You’re going to have a lot of characters (assuming this isn’t one huge monologue, and let’s face it, that wouldn’t really appeal to many people) and while the best friend might be excellent comic relief or the mentor wise and witty, they aren’t going to carry the story.
Readers need to see the hero and the villain as soon as possible.
- Opening with the villain gives your audience a chance to peek behind the curtain and see what dangers are about to befall the heroes. This can be an effective way to spark interest in your story.
- Opening with the hero lets the reader bond with him or her and immediately start to care about and relate to his or her life. If you’re writing romance, having the couple meet as soon as possible is important, and having them share most of the scenes keeps the tension up until they get their HEA. (But that’s an ending, and we’re talking about beginnings, so… moving on.)
It’s difficult for readers to appreciate the problem the hero is facing if they don’t know what that character’s regular day is like. Many authors start with the explosion—after all, we’ve been told to start with action, right? The problem is, we don’t know the characters yet. Are we supposed to be rooting for the guy who gets blown out the window, or is that the guy who set the explosion to begin with?
We have to establish the world before we destroy it. It doesn’t—and shouldn’t—take much. But readers need to care about the character in order to care about the story. If you take the time to show a regular Jo/Joe with a fear of fire entering an empty building, you’ll build suspense and ramp up the tension. That’s stronger than opening with a stranger’s eyes widening upon finding C4 and then… boom.
Status quo is clearly important for getting the reader to care about the character. But too much, and you’ve stopped setup and fallen into a backstory trap.
Instead of giving too much about the current state of affairs, you need to introduce the problem. Does the couple have an ugly history but now have to work together? Does the hero have dual conflicting goals? Does the villain hit too close to home and throw the hero for a loop?
The novel’s problem can be anything, but it can’t come late.
This isn’t something people usually give much thought to, but it is important. It doesn’t matter how good your first line is if it’s not right for the story.
You may come up with the funniest line in the history of fiction, but if you’re writing a Holocaust drama, it’s not appropriate. You might have your heroine terrified about the world’s creepiest abandoned carnival, but if the rest of the story is a sweet beach romance, you’re off the mark.
Whatever tone you establish in the beginning is what readers will expect throughout the novel. Starting one way and then switching is like breaking a promise.
The First Line
There are plenty of ways to capture a reader’s interest. Pose a question. Offer a philosophical opinion. Reveal a poignant plot point which puts the focus on the journey. It doesn’t matter. What does is that it’s something that makes the reader move on to the next sentence, and then the next, and the next after that.
Here are some examples of opening lines that compel readers to continue:
- Who killed you? —David Baldacci, The Fallen
- When Ross MacLeod pulled the trigger and brought down the pheasant, he had no way of knowing he’d killed himself. And billions of others. —Nora Roberts, Year One
- Demon was such a nasty word. —J. R. Ward, Covet
- Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. —J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
- When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. —Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
- Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son. —Stephen King, Salem’s Lot
- A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
- Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984
- It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass
- Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
- Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger
- They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise
- It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road
- I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
- It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
- “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
- It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
- Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage
In conclusion, remember you’ll never get it perfect. (Well, never say never, but you know what I mean.) Beginnings have a lot to accomplish and little time in which to get it all done. The most important thing is not to be flawless; it’s to be irresistible. As long as you get a reader to buy your book and keep turning the pages, you’ve done your job.
Do you have a favorite novel beginning? Share it below.