Welcome to the 4th and final blog of my prep-tober series!! This seemed like a good finale for this series, because it’s where most people will be starting in November: with the beginning of their story.
The opening of a book is the most important part of the entire story. Why? If you don’t hook your reader immediately, chances are, they won’t keep reading. Some readers are more patient than others; they will give a book a few pages, or even a few chapters to make up their minds. The reality is, if you can’t hook your reader within the first few paragraphs, it’s game over.
So, where do you start?
Novice writers struggle with this. Even more experienced writers do. Knowing where and how to start a story is challenging. Given the weight of importance, it can be crippling. Have a look online. There are articles upon articles, lists upon lists with suggestions about “how to hook your reader.” All of these offer great advice. I highly recommend you do some digging, as my own personal experience is just one facet of a great big world.
For me, personally, I get hooked on a book when there are one or more of the following important aspects in the first chapter:
The biggest piece of advice I can give is: avoid backstory and info dumps. AVOID THEM LIKE THE PLAGUE. Nothing bores a reader more than learning everything there is about a character in the very beginning. What reason do they have to continue if you remove all the mystery at the start? Don’t you want to pull your reader along?
Think about all the books you have read in the past. What keeps YOU turning pages?? Questions! Questions keep you turning pages. The more curious you are, the more you want to keep reading. Do you know how a good author keeps you curious? They don’t tell you anything (meany-heads!!)! They only show you things in snippets.
They leave you wanting.
You’ve heard the “less is more” rule? I’m discovering in my own writing journey that less is always more. The less you tell a reader, the more then want to know. Now, obviously there’s a fine balance here, but you’d be surprised by how little you can give away and how far that little bit will take you. Always error on the side of less (especially when it comes to exposition).
As the author, you already know the who-what-when-where-why of your story and characters. Your readers don’t. Make sure they don’t know EVERYTHING for a while. You should be playing “hard to get” as if your life depended on it. Think of it like a scavenger hunt. When you start a scavenger hunt, you’ve got a list of items to find and you have to search for them. Don’t make it easy for the reader. Let them stumble across each of your breadcrumbs along the way. Your job is to start layering things in, sentence by sentence. Have stuff happening that moves the story along, and sprinkle tidbits about the characters past, their wants, their desires, their motivations, as you go along.
The fastest way to pull your reader in is assume they are already part of your character and world to begin with.
Think of it this way, when a reader picks up a book, they want to picture themselves as the main character. They want to be inside the MC’s head. This means that they are seeing and experiencing what the MC is. Your job is to make that experience feel authentic.
Let’s do a little exercise. Pretend you are the main character of your story. It’s your life, right? So that should be easy! Now, pretend that everything happening right now is being recorded or written somewhere in YOUR book of life. If someone were to pick up your book RIGHT NOW and start reading from this exact moment, how would that look? Would you suddenly stop everything you’re doing to explain your past? What you ate for breakfast? The fight you got in with your friend two days ago? How it made you feel?
No! You don’t know that someone is reading about your life. So you just keep doing what you’re doing (reading this blog) and you don’t talk about your past, or even much of anything really, except the fact that you are reading this article because you’re *hopefully* interested in becoming a better writer.
This exercise is great for helping you understand what it’s like to drop into a character’s life. Their life continues on uninterrupted, and the reader becomes a fly on the wall. Try to think about this as you write.
There are some DO NOTs here:
DO NOT send the MC off on a 3-page inner monologue of their life up to this moment. Not unless it’s EXTREMELY important. And even then, you should still avoid it unless you’re Stephen King and can write anything that sells. If something from your MCs past is important, layer it in when the time is right. If they’re doing something specifically because something in their past happened (inner motivation), don’t tell the reader! Let the reader wonder why they’re doing it. Then, later, after the reader has had time to think about it, drop the bomb of “why.”
DO NOT introduce your character by having them tell the reader what they look like. We’ve all read novice books where the MC is like “I have brown hair and blue eyes, blah blah blah,” or whatever. I’m paraphrasing here. How often do YOU look in the mirror and tell yourself what your hair color is? How often do you look in the mirror and go, “I have blue eyes,” or some other visible trait? You don’t (I hope), because you already know what you look like (again, I hope)! Your main character knows what they look like, too. They’ve (presumably) seen themselves in the mirror several times, so having them explain what they look like to the reader as a “set-the-stage” technique is a no-no. You can do this later, when they’re getting ready for a dance, or getting ready to go do something, after your reader is already curious about them.
DO NOT start with something cliche like waking up from a dream. OMG, I’ve done this. I’m embarrassed to even admit it (but it was years ago when I knew nothing about writing). Unless your book is about a character who has wild dreams all the time, or their dreams are going to be the thing they have to defeat, in which case, sure, go for it. In other words, unless the story is actually about dreams, the symbolism of dreams, or dreams as a plot technique, there’s no reason to have your character wake up from dreams as the opening of a book. Another cliche (and there’s lists of these out there) is waking up for any big event, the first day of school, a big work meeting, etc. Just…don’t. There are many more creative ways they can start the story. Like, walking onto campus (if it’s the first day of school). No one needs to hear about how hard it was to pick the perfect outfit. If that’s really important, you can hint about it as they go about their first day of school. Seriously, the reader will thank you for not boring them to tears. We all know what getting ready for the first day of school is like.
DO NOT feel like you have to describe everything in the first chapter. You don’t need to go into every detail about the setting, the world building, the magic system. Oh, wow, that’s a big one. The magic system! Some novice authors make the mistake of believing that if they have a unique magic system, they need to explain all the rules before the MC can use any magic. It doesn’t matter if the MCs been using magic all their lives, suddenly, it needs explaining. That would be like me explaining exactly how a dishwasher works in order to turn it on. I’m 33-years-old and have been using a dishwasher all my life. But I’m the MC of my story, and now I’m suddenly explaining how a dishwasher works in order to turn it on???? Does that sound realistic to you?? Because the thing is, I already know how the dishwasher works! I put the dishes inside, fill the compartment with soap, close the door, and press the start button. My reader doesn’t NEED to know how it works right now. It just works. That’s-that. They don’t need to be told that every spell drains a little of your energy, that you can only use certain types of magical herbs for certain spells, that each spell will kill a plant outside, that every color of magic means something different, that you need different types of wands to perform different types of…oh, gosh, you get my point. Show them what is relevant in THIS moment. Use your scene to SHOW these rules, but don’t go into depth explaining why. You’ll have PLENTY of time to explain bits and pieces about the magic system throughout the story.
Okay, now for some DOs because we all like being told what to do when it comes to good writing:
DO start in the action, with something sustainable that sets the scene. Starting mid-action for a novice writer is the most fool-proof way of ensuring you hook your reader. It creates questions: how did the MC get here? What happened? What’s going on? Etc. If you read books on story structure, most of them want an “opening scene” followed by an “inciting incident.” If you don’t know what the inciting incident is, I suggest you do some research. The short of it is, an inciting incident sets the stage for the story. For example, when I wrote Talon the Black, the inciting incident was a dragon falling from the sky. Think about it: if the dragon hadn’t fallen, there would be no story. What MUST happen for there to be a story? What’s the ONE THING that needs to happen to push the story into motion? That’s your inciting incident. You can start there if you’d like, or have a quick opening scene before that leads up to it.
DO make your MC relatable as quickly as possible. Make sure you know their “wound,” which is that thing that scarred them or hurt them. It’s the thing they will have to conquer by the end of the book. That wound is what makes them relatable. It could be a struggle of some sort, an event that scarred them for life, etc. Make them relatable either by their personality, their strengths, their weaknesses, etc. Your reader needs to LIKE them. Do you enjoy reading books with characters you don’t like? I don’t. If I don’t like the character, I put the book down and don’t pick it up again.
DO ground your reader so that they know what world they’re getting into. You don’t need to put a ton of world building explanation for this to happen (please don’t). Simply make sure that the scene has a few descriptors of the type of world, things you can tie into the action so that you’re SHOWING and not TELLING. You don’t want to blindside your reader. So make sure you do a good job setting the stage with showing what exists.
DO introduce immediate conflict. Everyone loves drama. Drama, drama, drama. Conflict creates questions. It intrigues the reader, creates tension, etc. This conflict could be either internal or external. If it’s internal, it’s some sort of inner-demon the main character is grappling with, a personality trait, indecision, etc. If it’s external, it could be a wide variety of things that tend to do with the antagonist of the story or the villain.
All right. Well, this is by no means an extensive study in opening a book. But hopefully it’s given you some things to think about. I advocate in nearly every blog the importance of reading. Reading helps you become a better author. So, your homework is to go to all your favorite books and read the first few paragraphs again. Think about why the book hooked you? What did you like about it? What made you want to keep reading? I’ve got a blog on book openers that looks at different books and what opening sentences they used to hook readers.
This blog isn’t that.
It isn’t so much about the “best” opening sentence. It’s about setting the scene. It’s about the first several paragraphs, making your reader want to keep reading. Don’t worry about the opening sentence right now. You’ll probably change it 100 times as you write your story. Just worry about giving your reader a reason to keep reading.