You’ve written a novel and are revising it. Is the opening scene as grabbing is the story deserves? Or perhaps you have an idea for a novel and wonder where to start.
Here are some pointers. They are suggestions, not rules, and it’s up to you to choose what works best for your book.
START CLOSE TO THE ACTION
Inviting readers to your story is like having guests for dinner. Once they’ve arrived, don’t keep them waiting. The pie should already be baking in the oven, filling the room with enticing smells. You may welcome your guests with a drink and small talk, but then it’s time to serve the meal. Don’t go to the kitchen to start cooking now.
From the first page, readers need to sense that something exciting is about to happen. Don’t keep them waiting for long.
HOOK THE READERS
Place at least one ‘hook’ in the first five sentences, something to grab your readers’ interest so they simply have to read on. Different hooks work for different readers. Choose hooks which entice readers of your genre. The mere mention of a bachelor with a rakish reputation may get Regency Romance readers excited, but it won’t arouse fans of Police Procedural Thrillers.
STATE THE GOAL
The main character wants something. What is it? State it as early and clearly as possible. Readers root for characters who have a goal.
FOUR TYPES OF BEGINNINGS
When you start the novel with dialogue, the story feels vivid from the start. This is also a great way to introduce characters and conflicts.
Stick to two characters, because more speakers would confuse the reader who hasn’t met these people before. Make it clear who is saying what. Avoid info-dumping dialogue where speakers explain to one another things they already know.
Opening with the setting allows you to set the mood for the scene and the whole book – tense, creepy, humorous. It also conveys the scene’s location, the season and the time of the day, as well as the Point-of-View character’s state of mind.
Avoid lengthy setting descriptions without character or action. Put the character into the setting, let him or her move in or interact with it. If you’re writing deep Point-of-View, show the setting from the PoV character’s perspective. Use several senses – not just vision, but sound and smell, and perhaps touch and temperature.
This opening as exciting, and it promises the readers that they’re in for a thrilling ride. The characters chase a fugitive, hoist a sail, rehearse a show, escape from prison, build a wall, wrestle a villain, forge a sword or do something else relevant to the plot.
To tap into this excitement, the readers need to know why the character is fighting, working, chasing, fleeing, otherwise they have no emotional investment. If several characters are involved, focus on just two of them, otherwise the readers get confused.
Telling the reader who the characters are, explaining their background and current situation, and giving an overview of the social conditions was an acceptable way to start a novel in the 19th century. Authors could devote several pages to explanations before allowing the story took off.
Most modern readers don’t have the patience for this. They want to read a story, not explanations. Unless you’re consciously imitating 19th century style – perhaps for a parody – I suggest you avoid this approach.
NINE OVER-USED NOVEL STARTS
Most novels by novice authors start with one of the same nine beginnings.
Although these starts are not wrong, they are unlikely to get your novel selected for publication. Put yourself in the mind of an agent or editor reading submissions. If she’s seen the same opening twelve times already that day, yours won’t grab her interest.
It’s OK if your draft begins with one of these openings, because they’re a useful exercise for the writer to transition into the story, but you may want to change it before you submit the manuscript for publication.
- Getting out of Bed
The character wakes in the morning, gets up, brushes teeth, dresses and packs while thinking about the day ahead.
- The Disoriented Wake-up
The character wakes up wondering where he is and how he got there.
- The Journey
The character walks (or drives, rides, sails, flies) to the destination. On the way he reflects on his life history and on the social conditions and politics of the place.
- The Captain Hears Alarm
The captain/sergeant/team leader of a police/military/paramilitary/medical/other unit is engaging in a peaceful activity (typically having a drink with his comrades) when suddenly the alarm bell rings/the siren howls/the red light flashes. In the resulting scramble, he rallies his team to deal with the emergency.
- The Wardrobe
Standing in front of her wardrobe, the character considers what to wear for an upcoming event.
- The Mirror
The character sits in front of the mirror, beautifying herself for the event and contemplating her looks.
- Waiting in a Bar
The character sits in a bar (sometimes in a coffee shop, restaurant, hotel lobby or pub) waiting for someone (usually a stranger) whom he is supposed to meet here. The person is late.
- The Writer Writes
The novelist sits at her computer, thinking about a story she is going to write.
- The Window Gaze
The character gazes out of the window, reflecting upon her present, past and future.
FOUR MISTAKES TO AVOID
Besides starting too far away from the action or using over-used beginnings, many novice writers make one of these mistakes which put readers off.
- Four-Letter Words
In a desperate bid for attention, many new writers start with with a swearword: “Damn!” “Hell!” “Fuck!” This method worked to shock readers (and editors) to attention 100 years ago. Today’s readers are just bored.
- Confusing the Reader
Trying to intrigue the reader, new writers often write nebulous openings. But instead of growing curious, the reader who doesn’t understand what’s going on simply puts the book or manuscript down and reads something else.
- Haha – I Got You
Another desperate ploy to get attention is the fake opening. The author presents the character in an exciting situation – and at the end of the scene, this is revealed to have been merely a dream/a computer game/a simulation exercise.
Many inexperienced writers flash back to what happened before the story’s beginning, on the first page. This is not a good idea, because the reader doesn’t yet care about the characters’ past. Postpone major flashbacks until later scenes when the reader has become interested in this person. If a flashback is necessary in the first scene, keep it as short as possible.
How does your current work-in-progress begin? Are you happy with the start, or are you going to change it after reading this post? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section.
Do you want to write fast-paced, exciting, sizzling dialogue? This book reveals professional dialogue technique to characterise the speaker, carry the plot forward and entertain your readers.
This is not a beginner’s guide. It assumes that you have mastered the basics of fiction writing, and don’t need an explanation of what dialogue is and why it matters for your story. But your dialogue isn’t yet as strong as your story deserves. Perhaps it drags, perhaps the characters all sound the same, and perhaps it lacks tension, wit or sparkle.
I’ll offer you a toolbox filled with techniques. These are not ‘rules’ every writer must follow, but tricks you can try. Pick, mix and match them to suit your characters and your story.
Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in RayneHall – Fantasy Horror Author – reduced size Portrait by Fawnheartseveral genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and more) and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.
She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.
Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian on the south coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.
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