The beginning of any novel is in many ways the most important part of the book because it’s during those first few paragraphs or pages that the reader decides if they are going to commit to your characters and their story or not. Often when I go to a bookstore I’ll browse my favorite session and take a book off the shelf. I’ll read the back cover and if the premise seems interesting I’ll go straight to the first few pages. Why? Because it can tell me a lot about the author’s writing voice, mood of the book and if the characters are compelling enough for me to commit. So what elements are needed to capture that reader and keep them turning the pages?
1. Start with suspenseful action
Action doesn’t always mean movement – it just means something is happening to someone in order to introduce characters and their world, create tension with a touch of mystery and drive the story forward. Whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental, your characters could be in the middle of being chased down, in a car accident, grieving at a funeral, fighting with their ex, contemplating suicide or any number of other scenarios that will draw the reader in with the simple question – why? The rest is up to you but along with action you must also give the reader to reason to care about the outcome of this character and what they are going through.
2. The hook
Readers pick up books because they look interesting and something about them is appealing, but it’s the hook that makes you want to read that next paragraph or turn that first page and keep going. It’s the first thing they read and can captivate them or have them close the book and put it back on the shelf. It can be the first few paragraphs or the first few pages but ideally you want the reader to be hooked with the first sentence so you can reel them into the story and keep them reading.
3. Introduce the Main Character
There is nothing more frustrating than reading the first few pages of a story and being introduced to everyone but not knowing who the main character is or even worse, the main character doesn’t show up until the middle or end of the first chapter. In order for your reader to care about your main character they need to have contact with them fairly close to the beginning of the first chapter. This gives the reader a chance to love, hate, admire, despise or any other assortment of emotions they’ll feel toward your character as they relate to them on some level and begin to care about what happens to them.
4. Start in the middle
Try putting your character(s) in the middle of an event rather than the beginning. It’s more interesting, adds tension and gives the scene drama. Wait as long as possible before you start your opening scene. Often writers start too soon and bore the reader with details that really aren’t as important to the story as the writer feels they are. Avoid starting at the beginning of the day or the end of it, waking up from a dream or picking up a phone – these are all events that have been done to death and readers usually don’t find them interesting or unique enough to capture their attention. Think of the moment just before the height of the action or emotion and put your character there as the start of your story. If details are needed you can always pepper them in as the story progresses, but readers want to be swept away and the best way to do it is by making the scene as intense and interesting as you can.
It’s important to provide your reader with where your character is and when so they feel grounded in the scene and can imagine your main character in it. However, this needs to be done carefully so you aren’t overloading and weighing down your story with heavy detail and bringing your pace to a grinding halt. A line here and reference there by your characters or through dialogue can give your reader enough clues that they feel satisfied for now without being overwhelmed with description and details. Remember, a novel is a marathon…not a sprint.
6. Don’t pause to explain
You want your story to flow but if you stop the momentum to explain the backstory or what happened just before all the stuff you just wrote, your pace will slow and your reader’s interest will diminish. The first chapter is the time to get your reader interested in what’s happening to your character and what’s going to happen next. If you load that down with details before the reader has had a chance to connect and form a relationship with your main character they will stop reading and stop caring what happens to them.
7. Creating a stellar first line
Everyone has that favorite novel with the amazing first line that defines the whole story. It’s hard to do and I’ve known writers who’ll go back to the beginning of the story and rewrite the first line once they’re done the first draft to make sure it fits with the theme and tone of the novel. Spending time on that first line is important as it is the first contact the reader has with your story and offers them the promise or has them ask the question that they want to have answered in the novel. It’s something very few authors are good at but when they get it right they create a memorable moment for the reader.
8. Making the reader care about the main character
If the reader doesn’t care about the main character within the first few pages they aren’t likely to continue reading. Even if your character is unlikeable, if you can get the reader to care about what happens to them next they will continue to read your story. Starting with dialogue, internal or external can draw your reader in, make them identify with the character and give them a reason to want to take that journey with them.
There is nothing more compelling for turning that page to the second chapter then to end with the character right on the edge of something intense. Conflict is exciting and disrupts the journey your reader thought your character was on, making the story more interesting and exciting. Drama is the sweet elixir readers drink with greed and come back for more, and ending your first chapter on that note will create a need within your reader to want more.
10. Short and sweet
I attended a workshop once with an author who had published several novels and had a very strong fan base. He was asked what best advice is for the first chapter – I’m paraphrasing – he said he always makes his first chapter half the length of his other chapters in the book. The reason why is because he wants to create a tight, short introduction to the character and world to hold the readers interest but doesn’t want to get bogged down with details.