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
“Is today a good day to die?
This is something I ask myself in the morning when I wake up. In third period when I’m trying to keep my eyes open while Mr. Schroeder drones on and on. At the supper table as I’m passing the green beans. At night when I’m lying awake because my brain won’t shut off due to all there is to think about.
Is today the day?
And if not today – when?
I am asking myself this now as I stand on a narrow ledge six stories above the ground.”
This opening is simply brilliant. It hooks the reader straight into the story with the premise; the elements of teenage mental health are drawn out from the first line. And very quickly they link to now, to Finch standing on the ledge and getting us right into the story. He’s presented as an active character.
Note: If you like reading contemporary YA, All the Bright Places book is a must.
The Graveyard Book // Neil Gaiman
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”
How much better can an opening scene, and line, be? Gaiman pulls us right into the action and the story, showing an immediate danger. What’s not interesting about a knife in the darkness? Everything the reader needs to know is established in just a few words, setting the tone of the story and plunging the reader into the plot.
Lolita // Vladimir Nabokov
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Straight away we are introduced to the main subject of the story, and then to the present narrative of Humbert’s conditions to which the reader can immediately question why he’s there in the first place – for what crime? With such an emotively obsessive first line, already it’s easy to suggest that Lolita does not have a reliable narrator.
That’s all for this week, folks! I hope that you found this post informative. Please let me know your thoughts about books you’ve read. What are your favourite opening lines or scenes? What are your least favourite?