The opening scene of your book has one important job, and that’s to keep readers reading! There’s more than one way to write a good beginning, and there’s plenty of good writing advice out there to help you. Here’s a great article on writing your first chapter: Four Elements of a Great First Chapter. And here’s another on writing your first line: Hooking with the First Line.
But today I want to focus on this particular question: Are you starting your book in the right place?
Often when I’m editing my own work, or beta reading for another author, I realize the manuscript begins in the wrong place. Well, maybe not the wrong place, but not the most enticing place, and we really want to entice our readers with our first few pages.
Start at the very beginning…or maybe not.
I’m going to discuss two very different types of opening scenes from my own work as examples, and I’ll share with you the rationale behind my choice for each. I hope they provide some good insight as you consider where to begin your own tantalizing tale!
Pull readers in with the action.
The opening scene of one of my science fiction novels depicts the main character witnessing a spaceship crash outside her hidden camp. She risks exposing herself to save the injured pilot. It’s a tense, exciting scene that delivers some important tidbits of information to readers, but really focuses on the action.
I’d originally written more of her history in the first few pages, but in a later revision, I realized that the crash scene was a great hook. It set up questions that readers would want resolved and gave a glimpse of the world I was building. It did that using a page-turning action sequence that didn’t require any previous character development for readers to invest in the moment. A few scenes later, when the pilot is recovering, and when readers need a breather, I reveal more about my protagonist’s traumatic backstory and really dig into the main conflict on her world.
In your manuscript, where is the sweet spot that really pulls readers in? Does it make sense to begin there and build the backstory over time?
Invest them in the characters.
I did something completely different with the opening scene of one of my romantic suspense novels. In the first draft, I started with a really intense scene – one I thought would hook readers with its impact. The main character is being held by a serial killer and her ordeal live-streamed on the dark web for the world to watch. Her boyfriend is desperately trying to find her. The scene in question happens when she looks into the camera, realizing her time is running out, and says an emotional goodbye to him. But I changed it, and here’s why.
Sure, the scene had intensity. It was dark and shocking, and readers could certainly figure out quickly what was going on with the main plot line. But, readers didn’t have any kind of attachment to the main characters yet. They hadn’t witnessed them falling in love, trying to manage a long-distance love affair, or working their way back from a devastating break-up. I realized that readers needed all that first in order for this particular scene to have the emotional punch I was aiming for.
I decided to start this book at the beginning, or at least the beginning for my two main characters – when they meet for the first time in a dive bar. It’s a funny, sweet scene, and one I hope invested readers in the couple right away.
Do readers need to feel a connection to your main characters first in order to invest in the plot action of the story? If so, can you lay the foundation for this in the opening scene?
There are many places you could begin your story, and you may have to try a few options before you get it right. The best choice will serve the story and keep readers turning the pages.