Write Beginnings that Compel Readers to Turn from the First Page
Books are moments in time. Whether you wrote your first 50,000-word NaNoWriMo book or a monstrously long epic to rival the quarter-million-word counts of Stephen King’s Wizard and Glass or George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, your book must focus on particular windows in time. These windows are important to maximize the enjoyment of the reader and to keep them from getting confused. This article is about how to write your book’s beginning so that will hook your readers.
Importance of Beginnings
The beginning of your novel is extremely important. I have stressed in a previous Wednesday Writer’s Workshops about having a complete beginning, middle, and end. Often, writing guides and how to articles focus on the growing tension or climactic ending. The point of reading the story is to experience where the evil king was slain, the murderer was caught, the girl chose between several suitors, the ghost was banished, etc. However, your reader can’t get there if your book has a weak beginning.
Self and independent publishing are more popular than ever. The gatekeepers are gone and it’s time to put your book on Amazon or other retailers. One great thing the online retailers do to mimic a real bookstore is to offer the first few pages or the whole first chapter of books for reading. Customers can look at your book and read its beginning before deciding to buy it. This same thing happens in real bookstores. Aside from the cover, the first chapter, first pages, and even the first sentence are crucial to your book being purchased. If a shopper reads the first paragraph and it doesn’t grab their attention, then they may put it down. I argue that you have one sentence to hook your reader.
Choosing the right window to open a book prevents many people from writing. Usually, book ideas begin with the conflict at the end. The climax or revelation is what gets the creative juices flowing. Little thought is given on how to start, initially. Each chapter or scene is a window into the characters, story events, or setting. The first window is crucial to hooking your reader’s attention and keep them reading.
Start with Action and Characterization
The beginning of your story should show your character in his or her element. The main character thinks it’s just another day at work, another afternoon of classes, or another night on the trail. Give your readers a window into the life of your character before they are Called to Adventure.
This window into the normal life of your character cannot be boring, regardless if your main character turns out to save the world from a subversive alien species, but starts out as a telemarketer. Banish the boring by creating tension in her life in the beginning paragraphs. The book could open with the main character getting yelled at by her boss, or she missed the bus and had to walk to work through a bad part of town. There are hundreds of ways to stress your character, build tension, show some characterization, and hook your reader.
Action or tension in the beginning of your novel must feel authentic, present, and tie into the end. This means the events of your opening need to be related to the character at that moment in time and foreshadow what’s going to happen at the end. Back to the telemarketer example, let’s say you opened your book with the main character missing the bus and she had to walk to work. Walking through a bad part of town, she was chased by a dog and cornered in an alley before the owner can get to the animal. She’s fine, other than being terrified, hopefully, your reader is too. This can provide a great opening sequence and foreshadows the climax where she must confront another dog in order to save someone close to her.
Your reader should feel satisfied with the tension in the opening pages. They will feel rewarded when she fights off the other dog, in the end since they will remember the dog chase from the beginning. Your character will make a complete transformation by standing up to a fear introduced in the first pages. Reading a dog chase scene, if done well, is a great way to grab your reader’s attention as people preview a book on Amazon or read it in a bookstore.
The first couple of paragraphs or the whole chapter are crucial at introducing your character, but the pinnacle of it all is in the first sentence. Not all book shoppers are so picky as to only read the first sentence, but there are many of them out there. I know from personal experience as a reader that the first sentence determines my enthusiasm of reading the rest of the page or book. I will usually keep reading, but that first sentence is a large part of it. Here’s how to nail that first sentence.
Writing the First Sentence
An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this. – Stephen King
There are multiple theories and methods on writing the first sentence. That sentence is your reader’s insight into what to expect from the rest of the book. While researching this article I stumbled across an article from Writer’s Digest about first sentences and it was better than what I was coming up with. The guest column outlined seven different types of first sentences.
Statement of Eternal Principle
The Statement of Eternal Principle is a line that will always be true. No matter what happens in the other thousands of sentences throughout the rest of your book, this first one will always be true. It foreshadows things to come and serves as the example of truth. Such statements are also used to establish the moral of the story.
“The moment one learns English, complications set in,” from Felipe Alfau’s novel Chromos is a great example of the eternal principle. It states something that will always be true and foreshadows the hardships of the immigrant characters as they are caught between their home culture and that of New York.
Statement of Simple Fact
The Statement of Simple Fact is simply that – a simple fact. It doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t. It sets up the rest of the book, but only concerns itself with that book. Conversely, the Eternal Principle is true both inside and outside of the book.
“I am an invisible man,” from Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison works because the main character was truly invisible. This set up the question in the reader’s mind, “Will he ever be normal again?” Read on, reader, and find out.
Statement of Paired Facts
The Statement of Paired Facts gets a bit more complicated than the previous two. This opening requires two parts of a complicated sentence structure that rely on each other. This is a great mechanism for creating irony and can also help set the mood and voice of the story.
“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women,” from Middle Passage by Charles Johnson. Both sides of the sentence rely on each other for their clarity and wit.
Statement of Simple Fact Laced with Significance
This statement takes the simple fact from before and makes it stronger. The opening is filled with foreshadowing, even if not immediately understood.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” from 1984 by George Orwell was an iconic opening to a classic book. The true power of this opening was in the later parts of the book where Orwell’s main character lived in a regimented society and every hour marked something of significance.
Statement to Introduce Voice
Establishing the novel’s voice from the beginning is vital. Voice is the word choices and phrases used by the author. Each author has their own voice and voice can vary by genre or type of writing. Technically, every first sentence establishes the voice. Keep voice in mind when you’re coming up with your first sentence.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth,” from The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. This opening had a clear voice and let the readers know what to expect from the narrator.
Statement to Establish Mood
The mood of a novel is using words, themes, and subject matter to evoke an emotional reaction. “Saving the cat” has a different emotional response for the reader than killing the cat. If your book had a focus on one or a few emotions, it could be a good idea to invoke or prepare your reader of those emotions early on.
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” by Ford Madox Ford in The Good Soldier let the reader know from the beginning that this may make them cry. The primary mood of this book was sadness and we get it right away.
Statement for Frame of Reference
Lastly, the Frame of Reference establishes the beginning. This is how things were when the reader discovered the world within your novel. Every opening sentence is a frame of reference much like Statement of Voice. I’ve argued several times in Wednesday Writer’s Workshop the importance of establishing who the character is before they go on an adventure.
“124 was spiteful,” was the opening line to Beloved by Toni Morrison. 124 was the house where most of the story took place and does not describe the house but the people in it. The reader knows things are bad at 124 and they are going to change by the end.
Often the first sentence of a novel is more than one of these seven. It should be more than one. With one sentence you should be able to establish some sort of reference, fact, mood, and voice. Be thinking about what you want your reader to know about the book if they only read the first sentence.
More from Wednesday Writer’s Workshop
Plotting, Pantsing, and the Three Act Structure
Things to Avoid in the First Chapter
You have a short amount of time to hook or your reader’s attention and pull them into your narrative. Some will give you a chapter or a few paragraphs. Others will give you a single sentence. Here are some things to avoid during your first chapter.
Excessive Background Information
Time is short in the first paragraph. You should give your reader only enough information to get through the first chapter; you’re not Tolkien. The first chapter is about the hook and action. Your second chapter is the time to slow the pace, explain some backstory, and give more information. Thinking about our telemarketer from above, the second chapter would show her in her cubicle thinking about the encounter with the dog and remembering being attacked as a child – the source of her fear.
Starting a Different Story
Don’t laugh. This can happen. Sometimes the story you end up is not the one you began. It happens to plotters and pantsers. The creative process takes many twists and turns. I regularly deviate from my outlines and go to strange places I didn’t expect. If you end up with a different beginning than the ending, then rewrite the beginning to match the current ending and save the original beginning for a new story. You can always recycle ideas, events, or characters.
Always make sure to go back after you’ve finished making sure the beginning coincides with the end. Well, you should always reread your text and edit once before hiring a professional editor.
Two Common Weak Openings
Using the weather is a weak way to open your book. First of all, the weather is a part of the setting, not characterization. Your opening should focus on a character. People read books about people. If you want to hook your reader, the first thing they should read is something about a character they can relate to who is in action. Weather can be a big part of your opening to create tension. The dog chase scene could be heightened if the telemarketer had to run in the rain or it was scorching hot and she was dehydrated. Use weather to enhance your opening character but don’t let it be the focus and not the first sentence.
Dialogue is another commonly used technique for opening a book. This technique is similar to opening up with the weather. It’s distracting from the main character. The reader is too focused on trying to understand what the characters are saying. All they can do is hold on while your characters chatter back and forth about something that happened earlier in the book. The reader has no context as to what is happening nor do they care. They weren’t there to read about what happened. There is room for dialogue in your first chapter, but not in your opening paragraphs or first sentence. A quick back and forth between characters may seem entertaining and catchy to you, but your reader will be lost trying to figure out who the hero is and why they should care about him or her.
The prose of a book is used to convey information about the world. Dialogue and monologue are used to convey information about the character speaking. I’ll discuss more this in an up and coming article on style, but another reason not to use dialogue at the beginning is that it’s often used to convey information about the world or situation. Dialogue isn’t meant for that. Dialogue is used to give insight into the characterization based on character’s conversations, subject matter, word choice, and timing. The beginning of your story is not the time to reveal much about your character from their own mouths; reveal it about them via action.
Shop Your Story
Finally, shop several openings to family, friends, beta readers, or a writer’s group if you aren’t sure if the beginning will work. It’s important to have someone else read your work. Make sure to give it to someone who will give you objective feedback. Praise is good, but you won’t get better if you aren’t pushed or challenged.
The beginning of your story is extremely important. Take the time to give it the attention it needs. Everything that comes later will hinge on your execution and set up in the beginning paragraphs and first sentence. The reader has given you a chance. They saw your book cover, maybe read the description, and read the first sentence. Make sure your first sentence peaks their interest and draws them in. You have one shot at this and I believe you will do great. Now, go evaluate your book beginnings.
Looking for a book editor? Rae Publishing is actively accepting manuscript submission for developmental and copyediting as well as proofreading. Check out our editing and submissions process here.
Stephen King’s quote Credit
Writer’s Digest Credit