It’s probably a holdover from my school days, but I always associate autumn with beginnings. This fall in particular has been full of them: I created a new website, Facebook page, newsletter, and announced the release of my debut novel. I’m also starting this new blog, where I’ll share what I’ve learned in my professional experience as a book coach and editor along with my personal experience as a writer and avid reader.
So let’s get to it. It’s only fitting for this first post to be about story beginnings. In order to engage and retain the reader, that introductory chapter has a lot to accomplish. Some issues to consider:
It all begins with that opening line. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up a book, read the first sentence, and set the book aside (sometimes never to return). You know what they say about second chances and first impressions. So hook ’em fast and hook ’em early. Here are a few first lines I love:
“What do you pack for the rest of your life?” (So Much for That – Lionel Shriver)
“I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.” (Story of My Life – Jay McInerney)
“I have never looked into my sister’s eyes.” (The Girls – Lori Lansens)
Granted, I prefer a shorter opening line, but length is not as important as content. What all three of these have in common is that they immediately raise my curiosity. Right away, I have questions. Why are you packing for the rest of my life? What is this shit you don’t believe? Why have you never looked into your sister’s eyes? Once I have questions, I’m going to keep reading until I get the answers. Which leads me to…
“Every life is a mystery. And every story of every life is a mystery.” – Cornell Woolrich
Regardless of your genre, at its core, every story is a mystery. No matter how beautiful the prose, secrets, problems, and surprises are what keep us glued to the page. Set up tension in the opening chapter, whether internal or external (ideally both). Your story is a puzzle, so make sure the first piece you reveal makes the reader want to solve it.
This is the big one. When beginning a story, ask yourself: Why here? Why now? Why this main character (MC)? What does your MC’s life look like right now and how is it about to change? No matter what kind of story you’re writing, there needs to be a reason for why it begins where it does, a catalyst that sets the story in motion. And one of the biggest issues novelists face, especially those starting out, is not beginning the story in the right place. Sometimes it actually begins a couple of chapters in. In one manuscript evaluation I did, the story didn’t begin until 100 pages into the book. That’s when the inciting incident occurred, the turning point that shifted the MC’s everyday life and set her off on a new course. Often, this turning point is accompanied by a choice. In Gone Girl, newly unemployed Nick and Amy Dunn move from NYC to Missouri. In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers as tribute. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet is cajoled by his wife to visit a prospective suitor to marry off one of their daughters. All of these decisions are the first domino that knock down the rest. Find your first domino and you’ll discover where your story really begins.
Any time you pause to offer background info, if it’s not directly related to what’s happening in your story right now, you risk slowing down the pacing. Keep it to the essentials. The reader needs to know just enough about the who and the what. You can weave in additional backstory later on, once you’ve hooked the reader.
In order to care about what’s happening, the reader needs to know the key players of the story. Depending on your genre, liking them is not crucial (and I’ll write a separate post about character likability at some point), but being interested and invested in them is. As with backstory, you don’t want to overdo it with personal history, but give the reader enough to get a sense of who your MC is to care about what happens to them next. And be careful about introducing too many characters early on—more than three and you’re verging on character soup territory and may make it tough for the reader to keep track. What’s more important is to know what your MC wants. What will they be in pursuit of throughout the course of the novel? Speaking of pursuit…
Let’s say you want to grab the reader in the opening pages with a chase scene. You’ve got action and excitement right from the get-go; what can go wrong? Well, consider why such a scene is effective when done right: because we’re invested in the character(s) and want to see them get away (or catch whoever they’re chasing, depending on who we’re meant to root for). If we don’t know why we’re supposed to care about who’s involved in the chase and what’s at stake, chances are, we won’t. It’s fine to tease a bit of action early on, but that action requires a stronger foundation.
Yes, I want to hear your characters talk, but consider what they’re saying and why. Are you using dialogue to create intrigue, develop character, show emotion, and move the story forward? Great, carry on. Are you using dialogue to convey everyday life without any real conflict or personality? That’s a problem. Are you relying on dialogue for info-dumps? Also problematic (see note above about too much backstory).
What’s your story really about? What’s the connecting thread that runs through the narrative? Survival? Loss of innocence? Love/lust? Good versus evil? Alienation? Once you know the central theme, make sure your opening reflects it.
Start as You Mean to Go On
Considering all the elements necessary to balance when you begin a story, you’re likely to spend a lot of time fine-tuning that first chapter. Keep at it until you get it right. But don’t stop there. I’ve read countless manuscripts with strong openings that quickly grew lackluster. The same diligence with which you fine-tune your first chapter must be applied to all the subsequent ones. Once you hook a reader, keep them hooked up to the very last page. Write, revise, get reader feedback, revise some more, lather, rinse, repeat. It may be tough and frustrating and tedious but hey, so is being a writer. And when everything falls into place in your story, it’ll may just be sublime. So is being a writer (okay, not always… but sometimes?).