If there’s one thing that I’ve noticed in my own writing and through my critique group over the years it’s this: beginning a novel is hard. I can’t tell you the number of times my critique group has said to each other something along the lines of, “I think you should start the book at chapter two.” For some reason, figuring out the right place to get the story started can be trickier than you would expect. But there are a few key elements that you can include to make sure your novel starts out not only where it should, but in a way that will make readers want to keep turning the pages. Here are some ideas to consider:
1. Introduce Your Protagonist at the Beginning
One of the best ways to get your novel started correctly is to make certain that the character we first meet is the protagonist. Why? Because we’re looking for someone to connect with and root for immediately. If a novel starts with a character we may never see again or someone whose role is undefined, a valuable opportunity to invest readers in your main character is lost. Many readers will only give a book a few pages before they put it down. If your protagonist doesn’t appear on those pages, they may never even get to meet them. Building on that…
2. Give Your Readers a Reason to Root for Your Protagonist
This is often described as the “save the cat” method of writing beginnings (meaning you present the character doing something empathetic or humane, such as saving a cat, in the opening pages). Your opening pages are a great place to drop something in that will make readers want to spend time getting to know your protagonist. If they’re funny, give them a chance to let that shine with a great line, if they’re caring and charitable, consider starting in a scenario where that’s hinted, or if they’re going through a hard time, give us a hint of their dreams and goals and how that’s been devastated.
The more humanity you give your protagonist, the better. This goes for “black hat” characters as well. Think about Gregory House, from the television show, House. He’s a major jerk, but he’s brilliant. If we didn’t get to see that immediately, we might not want to stick around for eight seasons.
3. Dive into Conflict at the Beginning
While this doesn’t mean that you have to start your novel with an explosion or death—or even the inciting incident—it’s not a bad idea to have that inciting incident right around the corner. Giving the reader pages of backstory, exposition, and set-up won’t actually do much to entice them to keep reading. Conflict is a great way not only to show your how your character responds to a scenario in a way that can be empathetic and interesting, but also helps us want to read more.
4. Use Setting to Your Advantage
Setting is a fantastic way to ground your readers in the world you’re hoping to draw them into. Don’t be afraid to use setting details to pique your readers interest. If your readers can’t visualize the world your protagonist inhabits, then they’re going to have a hard time feeling grounded in your story. Don’t overburden your opening pages with exposition, but DO give us enough details (through your protagonist’s POV!) to help us understand where we are. Here’s a great article on setting: How to Make Your Story’s Setting Work for You.
5. Cliffhangers are Your Friends
Essentially, a cliffhanger introduces a problem that readers need or want to know the answer to, immediately. If you end your chapter with a problem, chances are your readers will turn the page to chapter two. Pick up some of your favorite books that end chapter one on a cliffhanger. Study the fine art of writing cliffhangers. Then find a way to create a problematic scenario at the end of your first chapter that your readers will be dying to know the answer to. It’s not only a great exercise for getting your readers hooked, but also a fantastic way to make sure your beginning is working for you.