Regardless of whether you are on your first, second, or eighth book, you’ve likely struggled with exactly how to start your novel.
I think part of this is due to the pressure we authors feel knowing that the old adage still rings true, and it even applies when it comes to writing a book: “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”
With that in mind, why IS it so important to start your book off in a compelling, grab-your-readers-by-the-eyeballs-and-don’t-let-go kind of way?
Besides…the reader has already bought the book, and as long as the story as a whole isn’t boring, has great characters, and ends well…then what’s the big deal?
Oh, it's a big deal, all right. So, let's break it down.
- You should be playing a long game, not a short one. So, just “making a book sale” based on a great cover and compelling title should not be enough for you. Think forward to book reviews, future sales, and maintaining your readership. None of these things will work out to your benefit if your opening is a total let-own.
- Your opening line, scene, and chapter are your promise to the reader. You’re vowing to them that you have a wonderful, unique tale in store for them if they will just hang in there and invest their precious time reading. And the best way to get your readers to agree to go along on the journey with you is to make sure the opening lays the foundation for the story you have promised to tell. Here’s a great article by KM Weiland about the promises we make (and break) when it comes to our readers.
- Since a great book centers around the journey of the protagonist, your opening scene is your chance to introduce your readers to him in his ordinary world, doing everyday things, and struggling with whatever seems to be his current “issue.” Exactly what your character does or where he is in that first scene is not as important as taking the opportunity to allow readers to get to know him, start to like him, and feel invested in his story. Then, they’re way more likely to stick around and root for the protagonist to win, save the day, and/or overcome his struggles.
Now, hopefully, we’ve established the WHY behind writing a great opening for your book. Let’s talk about what makes for a great novel opening, anyway.
The very best books, in my opinion, feature each of these elements:
If you can accomplish all of the above in that first chapter, you’ve laid the groundwork and set the tone for an unputdownable story.
Next, here are some things you should never do when writing that crucial first scene or chapter.
Try not to...
- Overuse pronouns – if you don’t name the protagonist (or whoever is featured in your opening scene), and you just continuously say he, she, or they repeatedly, we can’t even begin to know who they are, let alone relate to them.
- Feature vague narrative – while it’s not a bad thing to withhold certain key details from the reader and reveal them slowly as the chapter progresses, using cliché statements that are so vague, the reader feels like they missed something, or worse than that, they feel silly because to them, they think they just aren’t getting it. Never confuse your reader in an attempt to be clever or coy.
- Trick the reader – red herrings, especially in mystery, suspense, and thriller books are completely acceptable devices to employ, you have to be careful to distract, misdirect, and leave out some information, but full-on tricking or misleading the reader just to be clever will only frustrate them and break trust. Bookmark THIS LINK to learn more about how to fool but not frustrate readers.
- Dump the setting – a well-built setting/world will be revealed to the reader so subtly but vividly over the course of the first chapter, they soon pick up on where we want them to be without spelling it out for them in long, drawn-out (and oh-so-boring) detail.
Some other things to avoid:
And finally, let’s end with some tips on how to plan, prepare, and craft the best possible opening for your book!
- Prologues. These are actually not as evil as many people are led to believe. It’s just that so many new authors don’t write PROPER prologues, so it’s easier for most to simply say “don’t do it.” As long as your prologue functions as a snippet pulled from a point later in the book (usually a “flash forward”) that grabs the reader’s attention from the get-go, teases them with the tension and drama to come, then SNAP, ends just at the climactic moment and before anything important is revealed…you’ll be golden.
- First Line. As I mentioned earlier, do not stress over crafting the most profound, uniquely beautiful line ever written. You’ll spend forever holding yourself to an impossible standard. Instead, figure out what’s going to happen in your opening scene, then think of a line of narrative you can use that will instantly tell the reader that, not only are you a great writer, but that you’re about to tell them a very interesting story.
- Relatable Protagonist. If you want your readers to love your story and stay in it for the long haul, they have to feel invested in the protagonist and his or her journey. And in order for that to happen, the character must be somewhat relatable or, at least, a character like someone they know well in real life and can imagine easily. Make them as familiar as possible and uniquely human by describing details beyond hair and eye color, by showing (not telling) their internal and external emotional reaction in given moments, and by reveal their true nature through internal dialogue.
- Transportive Setting. You should never have to spell out for your reader where you want them to imagine themself. And your reader should be able to feel like they are right there where your characters are, even if they covered up the date in your subtitle. Don’t info dump, but sprinkle bits of information the same way your protagonist would notice them as she enters a room, turns a corner, opens a door, etc. Cover details like speech, clothing, landscape, vehicles, music…these little details dropped here and there in a natural way will transport the reader wherever you want them to be, and they’ll get there without even trying.
- Gripping Ending. End your opening chapter with a bang. Or at least, end it in such a way that the reader cannot help but to flip the page and keep reading through to chapter 2, even if it’s the middle of the night and the kids will be up soon. One great way to do this is to think about making your first scene ending your inciting incident. It could be a phone call the protagonist receives with shocking news, the letter they find on their doorstep that is cryptic and ominous, or something as drastic and obvious as them stumbling upon a dead body. Then…end scene. Cut to black just before the full picture is revealed and leave the reader dangling slightly, and if you can do this with the ends of most of your chapters, you’ll keep them up reading all night, and they won’t be able to put it down.
I hope this helps you feel less overwhelmed, pressured, and/or frustrated when developing your book’s opening scene.
Although I’ve given you several things to do and not to do, as well as examples of killer openings, at the end of the day, do not psych yourself out or put too much pressure on yourself.
My very best advice is, yes, keep these things in mind, but if you’re truly stuck…stop overthinking and just get the words down on the page first, then go back and edit later.
Do your best to form an opening chapter that checks all the boxes, but end it, move on, and continue writing. You can always go back and revise or even totally overhaul your first scene if, as your story unfolds, something entirely different makes more sense for your opening.
Just be careful not get in the habit of writing, editing, deleting, writing, editing, deleting.
Your first draft is just that…a draft.
Get the story down on the page THEN worry about fine tuning after you type THE END. And I cannot recommend highly enough for you to use ProWritingAid for self-editing before sending to your editor. You can even get a free trial HERE.
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