When I was a little girl, I thought every great story should start with the words “once upon a time”. It was a simple (if not overused) phrase but it had the power to immediately transport me to another time and place. Once I heard those four magical words, I was primed and pumped.
While great novels aren’t required to begin with “once upon a time” (although wouldn’t it be fun if they did?), the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, and the first scene are still the most critical hooks for storytelling. It doesn’t matter how exciting and spellbinding your story is if you can’t get readers to move on to page two.
In your first page, you offer a promise to the reader. It’s with your first few words that you convince the reader to follow you. These words demonstrate that you’re about to weave a fantastic tale. It persuades them to stick the story until the end.
Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t worry about plot, pacing, or characterization because you definitely should, but the first thing you’ve got to get right in your opening.
I’m not going to sugar coat it. Writing is the beginning of a novel is hard work. Heck-- writing the beginning of a blog post isn't easy, either. You’re tasked with a pulling the readeri in, making them care, anchoring the setting, and establishing the tone for the rest of the story. But, the good news is that you can do it, and here’s how:
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Start With Action
The beginning of your novel is not always the beginning of your story. In your writerly wisdom, you may choose to plop the reader right into the heart of the action. The reader opens your novel and finds himself right in the middle of a whodunnit scene (link), and the murderer has just darted into the shadows. Who wouldn’t be persuaded to keep reading with an opening like that?
Reject the urge to begin with too much back story. And, for reasons we’ll discuss later on in this post, avoid prologues, too… Just like politics at family get togethers.
Starting off with too much exposition, or laying the foundation for what’s considered “normal” to your protagonist, will actually bore the reader. The reader isn’t invested enough in your story yet to care about the background.
But, after you introduce the character and the problem that the character has to now overcome, the reader will begin to care.
A good story starts with a catalyst (also known as an inciting incident) that disrupts the protagonist’s normal everyday existence. The catalyst doesn’t always need to be revealed within the first few words, but it does need to happen within the first few pages. Do not, I repeat, do not use chapter one as a glorified prologue. Chapter one needs to start with action. Chapter two can delve into back story (but only if you must).
Also, don’t start out with the protagonist’s state of mind. Sure, the protagonist may be bored, depressed, or miserable about his or her daily “normal” existence. Who cares? Oh, he or she is ready for a new adventure? Excuse me while I yawn. That’s not really going to excite the reader because, once again, the reader doesn’t know your protagonist and doesn’t care yet.
As a reader, I don’t want to waste days of my life watching boring days of your protagonist’s life. Start your novel on the day that your protagonist’s life changes.
Rearrange the First Draft
Remember your first draft is just that-- the first one. Here’s where things get encouraging. You’re not under any obligation to come up with the perfect opener if you haven’t actually completed writing your story yet.
If you’re reading this post before drafting the first version of your story, take heart. The first version of your story is supposed to be a scattered mess. Even if you have an outline (which I wholeheartedly recommend), your story won’t really shine during the first telling of it.
Your first draft is the place where you dump all of your ideas and create a basic narrative guide.
It’s in the second and subsequent drafts where you (and your editor) take that story and mold it into a masterpiece.
So, look at the first draft as you would raw ingredients. It contains all of the elements you’ll need to make a successful story (and maybe a little extra). In the drafts that follow, you’ll need to choose certain ingredients and leave out others in order to create the winning formula.
You may also rearrange the order in which you tell your story. As I mentioned above, I recommend starting with the action.
But remember, it doesn’t actually matter how you start your novel when it’s still in first draft. Just start writing. You may even start with the boring days if that helps you learn more about your character(s) and the world of your story. But you must solemnly swear that in the subsequent drafts you’ll search for the most compelling moment to reel the reader in.
What About Prologues?
Prologues are a big nope. In the majority of cases, writing a story before the story begins is a waste of time.
Here’s why: Most readers skip right over prologues and dive head-first into chapter one. And if what you’re saying in the prologue is crucial to the story, why not just include it in the story? Only editors read prologues, and more than likely, they’re going to tell you to get rid of it.
Don’t feel pressured to lay the foundation with a complicated back story. If you start with a compelling premise, you can take your time to weave in the back story throughout your novel.
Don’t Get Carried Away With Description
Description is the enemy of action. And it’s not good for pacing, either. Describing every physical detail of your characters and the world in which they live is a huge mistake. It slows action to a grinding halt.
As I mentioned earlier, the first few pages of your novel should be engaging. It’s not necessary for the reader to have a complete image of the characters or their world. Fuzzy is okay.
Here are a few additional resources to help you create a winning novel.
- Everything You Need to Know About Writing Endings
- Use These 5 Tips to Create a Backstory
- How Writing Short Stories Can Help You Become a Better Novelist
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