This week’s post comes from a desperate plea deep inside of me, born from the struggles of a conflicted reader who is simply tired and frustrated of starting a new book that simply doesn’t begin in the right place.
They say you have only a few seconds to make a good impression on the reader, providing they like your book’s genre, cover and description enough to make it to the first page. With such a short space of time to grab your reader’s attention, why would you even bother to waste time or risk deviating your reader’s interest through the opening pages?
To start your book is simple, start your book where the story begins, where an event directly impacts the life of the protagonist, hopefully in an active way.
Do not, I repeat, do not start the book before the story begins. This is simply irrelevant and any backstory can be blended in throughout the rest of the novel. I don’t want to read backstory, I want to read actions.
For example, in my story Anon, the first chapter begins when Ashley goes to see Mrs Morris, her latest therapist. This is important for several reasons:
- It introduces Ashley’s relationship with her Mother (a character who appears later)
- It introduces Ashley’s relationship with Mrs Morris (a character who appears later)
- It introduces a dark stranger that follows her there (who becomes a major character)
- It reveals Ashley’s powers, which are an important element of the plot
- It’s an interesting way of revealing things about Ashley in an active way, that still gives a substantial amount of exposition
- And most importantly of all, it kick-starts the plot. If Ashley didn’t go there, she wouldn’t have noticed the stranger or the light, which is important because… You get the idea.
The opening must start the story, whether this is through dialogue, narration, a new discovery. I can’t emphasise this enough. The reader doesn’t have the patience to skim through the backstory of a character they don’t care about, they want to get into the action.This is a common reason why most prologues are simply unnecessary.
Worst ways to start your book:
- Character wakes up to the sound of an alarm clock. I know, I can feel you rolling your eyes at the screen. Enough said, unless you’re going to take a new spin on it and an alarm clock isn’t an alarm clock at all, but some kind of warning – something or someone is attacking, a deadly force that has the potential to destroy the world…
- Character looks in the mirror and laments upon his/her appearance. The readers don’t care about Rochelle’s beautiful long hair or Max’s fine suit as they prepare for their mundane activities. Unless of course there’s a twist: Max is checking out his reflection to check that there’s none of Rochelle’s blood on his freshly pressed shirt.
- A description of the character’s mundane life: Rochelle wakes up, Rochelle goes to school, Rochelle goes home. Why would anybody care about that? Readers don’t need to read a book to experience anything mundane, that’s why books are supposed to brilliantly absorb the reader’s attention.
- Character goes through a brilliant, enticing scene only for them to wake up and realise that it’s all been a dream.
- Character introduces himself with his name, age, ethnicity, backstory, as if they are telling the reader their entire database. Please, don’t do this. The only time I’ve ever seen this done well is in Malorie Blackman’s Checkmate, where Callie introduces her name and age, and then confesses those are the only things she knows to be true.
These are just some examples, but I’m sure you’ll have read some weak opening scenes as well. Please read ahead for some better examples that succeed in introducing the story in an enticing way, that grips the reader as well as kick-starts the plot.
Excellent opening examples that pull the reader straight into the story:
All the Bright Places // Jennifer Niven