Much as writers may hate the idea, we need to face this truth: we only get a few pages to hook our readers. Rather like the first bites of meal, the story opening of a novel will tell the person consuming it if they want to continue. If they don’t like what they’re having, there’s a strong chance they’re going to put down that book (or fork) for good.
Our mission then? To write a story opening that sparkles. We have to do our utmost to make those first pages pull the reader in. Here are some things that can help make an opening stronger:
1. Start in the middle of action.
Known as starting the story “in media res,” one of the best ways to captivate a reader is to start in the action. This doesn’t mean you have to start in a fight scene or with bullets flying. The action I’m referring to can simply be reduced to “something happening.” Literary professionals (agents and editors especially) often discourage writers from starting with sleepy openings such as a character waking up or driving to a destination.
Instead, start the story with the sense that something is happening or about to happen. Hint at a growing problem or a nagging concern. Suggest that the opening scene is the first day in your character’s journey or the last day in their normal.
2. Set the tone in the story opening.
Here’s a quick exercise. Pick up some of your favorite books and read the first page. Do you think you could tell what genre those books are without knowing anything else? Do you think you’d have a sense of how serious (or funny) the books are?
Good books should give their readers an understanding of what sort of book they’re reading. Consider the tone of the first pages a promise to the reader; they should be able to tell what they’re going to get. If you make the first chapter light and funny and the rest of the book takes a dark turn, readers may feel disappointed.
3. Introduce character in the story opening but limit backstory.
If your opening chapter doesn’t introduce your protagonist–you may need a new opening. The opening is a crucial place for giving your readers their first glance of your main character. This isn’t the place to dump a ton of backstory. Trust your readers to be able to pick up on important things in the character’s life by layering in backstory throughout. Here’s more on how to weave character backstory into your novel: The Intersection of Plot and Character Development.
What’s important in the opening pages is to get your readers to care. Few better ways exist to accomplish this goal than to make your protagonist interesting or intriguing enough that the reader wants to know what happens to them. Don’t overdo the details. What the character looks like is less important than their emotions and inner voice.
4. Develop a gripping hook.
The opening of a story is THE place to create a gripping hook for your novel. Your pages should present a question or a problem that needs to be solved.
The more intriguing the problem, the better chance your reader isn’t going to want to put the book down. The clearer the dilemma, the more it invests your reader in finding out the solution.
Obviously, depending on the genre you are writing, there may be certain guidelines you might want to follow for your story opening. Mysteries usually start with a death or murder. Rom-coms can frequently start with meet-cutes or a romantic problem. Regardless of genre, though, if you can make your readers care and grip them with a problem, you’ll have succeeded hugely. Chances are, they’re going to want to find out what happens next. Better yet, they won’t be able to put your book down.