Story endings often get all the attention. However, it takes a good beginning to motivate a reader to read to the end of a book. Just as an entire story usually has a structure that holds it together, so does a beginning. By “structure” I don’t mean it’s a rigid one. But the beginning shouldn’t just be a random series of events.
What Beginnings should do
In general, the beginning should accomplish the following:
- show the main character’s normal world
- evidence personality traits through action
- set mood
- spark curiosity
- compel readers to care about main character (hero)
- state theme
Consider this before you start
- Avoid beginning tropes, such as your main character dreaming, waking up in the morning, or looking at themselves in the mirror.
- Don’t start too early in the story. How do you know if you did? If “the good part” or “the real story” doesn’t start until well after the first three chapters or 50 pages, you may have started too early in the story. Another way to think of it: if you were to show only these pages to agents, would they know what the story is actually about?
- Know your genre and set mood accordingly, using age-appropriate word choices.
Read more: I include the above tips and more insight in my article, “My First Novel.”
“hooking” your reader
First lines should be tasty bait that lures, then hooks, readers into the story. In the bookstore, shoppers often skim through the first page before deciding whether to buy the book. It’s as if the reader wants to make an instant connection with the main character and the story itself.
Agents looking at sample chapters of a manuscript will stop reading if the beginning doesn’t capture their attention. They, too, want to emotionally connect with the main character.
Make them care
Readers are hooked when they care about what will happen next to the main character–their curiosity has been sparked. How? The hero performs interesting, active, forward-moving action. The author has set mood with limited, yet powerful, descriptions will give readers an idea of the genre they’re reading. Writing is concise. Active, descriptive verbs and literary tools such as simile, personification, and metaphor describe without “telling.”
Tip: read my article on clarity.
You may have a good story concept. However, if readers can’t connect emotionally with the main character, they likely won’t invest their time reading the book. Disinterested agents won’t request the full manuscript.
“showing” instead of “telling”
Showing a main character’s behavior sparks curiosity over why the character acts that way. At the same time, this behavior, or action, can draw sympathy or empathy from the reader. This establishes an emotional connection and even sets mood, which hints at genre.
“Melanie’s heart dropped, heavy with dread. Inching toward the car, she crossed her arms, hugging herself, while the dark cloud shrouding the sky rumbled. She knew she should run for cover because where there was thunder, there was lighting, and she’d been struck before. The back of her neck tingled as the fine hairs on it stood up. Maybe another electrical bolt was stalking her, breathing down her neck, but more than likely, it was caused by the person behind the wheel.”
The above opening scene, concocted by yours truly, shows that Melanie is scared–she’s hugging herself, walking despite the threat of lightning. Thunder describes setting and sets mood, and warning: a weather report in a story’s beginning is cliché. With that said, Melanie’s behavior and the weather help build tension. Readers might assume the story will be a thriller.
The line “where there was thunder, there was lightning” reflects an implicit them, similar to “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” In its entirety, the scene might prompt the following questions: Why is she fearful? Who is this driver, and why would she even think about going into that car if she’s so afraid?
“Recycled” Tip ( as noted in my How to Write a Novel article):
Don’t‘ start your story with:
(1) a dream sequence (cliché and a waste of your readers time)
(2) your main character getting out of bed (cliché)
(3) a preachy rant by the narrator
(4) long-winded descriptions
*The last two hold true for the rest of the book as well.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the importance of the ever-so-powerful (if you do it right) first line. I’ve more than once seen “Call me Ishmael,” the first line from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, used as an example of a great first line. What do I get from it?
- The statement urges me to connect with the narrator personally.
- This might be a long story; if not, a touching one.
- The narrator may be weary or just not in the mood to beat around the bush.
- I want to know why he wants me to know him on such a personal level. Maybe he wants to teach an important lesson.
- Ishmael is a Hebrew name. I wonder if the story reflects his culture.
Other Examples of first lines from published books:
These lines hint at genre, set mood, and kindle enough curiosity to hook a reader.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
What better way to spark a young reader’s curiosity than with humor? Rowling’s first line uses appropriate language and sets a lighthearted mood for middle graders. I sense the Dursley’s pride and that they are closed-minded. (“Thank you very much” ends the discussion.) Obviously, they’re not “perfectly normal”–let’s keep reading about how imperfect they really are!
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”Feed, by M.T. Anderson, Candlewick Press
This first line lacks interesting action verbs. However, the boring nature of the verbs does a few things (at least). It starkly contrasts the fantastic notion that the narrator has gone to the moon. It suggests the story is science fiction. In the narrator’s world, going to the moon has become boring. I can’t help but wonder what is exciting, thus what will happen next.
“They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.”The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz
I admit it. In order to fully understand this passage, I’d have to google Tainos and Antilles to see where they are and review their history. (I’m sure I did when I first read the book several years ago.) The “telling” in this fist line shows the narrator’s reflection, so we can guess this story is “literary,” not standard “genre.”
Demon, enslaved, nightmare–these powerful words set a dangerous, serious mood while sparking interest and empathy. Is the main character a victim of such horrible things? I like active verbs. However, here, the repetition of “it was” drives home the point that something happened that was so bad, it’s a metaphor for all of these other bad things. The narrator urges us to pay attention because this is serious stuff we’re about to get into.
Tip 1: Follow up reflection with action. Reflection will only hold a reader’s attention for so long. In fact, use action verbs when possible. The right ones can set tone and concisely set a mood.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.
Important to note, waking up in the morning is a cliché beginning. However, Collins does it in a purposeful (and successful) way. The line suggests a few things: the main character isn’t anxious to open her eyes, someone else is supposed to be there, and the room is cold. This sets a sober mood appropriate for a dystopian novel, while prompting questions: Who’s supposed to be there? Why is the house cold? Why does the MC feel the side of the bed instead of opening her eyes?
Tip: If you’re still lost on where to begin, or simply “stuck,” read my “Blank Page” article.
Beginnings must grab a reader’s attention and hold it. Part of doing this involves introducing a hero your readers can connect with emotionally, or empathize with. However, this connection has to happen while action propels the story forward.
Tip: Read the openings of your favorite books. What about them grabs your attention? What keeps it? Does your story’s opening do that?
Introduce characters and information in a gradual, natural way. I like how J.K. Rowling introduces the Dursley’s. (See quote above.)
Examples of what not to do:
Name Dump/information dump:
“Is Sue coming,” Jenn asked.
“You know her,” May said. “Sue’s sister, Ana, always finds a way to hold her her up. Lately, Ana’s boyfriend, Jake, the one who’s Uncle Sal was arrested for being in the mafia, is starting trouble. He’s been telling Ana that Sue should help out more with Mrs. Cranston–she is their mother after all, and as you know, Mrs. Cranston did just have a hip replacement. Looks like Jake hasn’t gotten over his control issues after all. Too bad Ana’s putting up with it even though she told us she wouldn’t anymore.”
“You have that look on your face again,” Kiki said to John. “Look, I realize I’m the only one who really senses when you’re in that weird zone. Are you feeling that rumbling beneath your feet again? Ever since it happened last year you haven’t been the same. I know your mother took you to that psychologist and you didn’t like her, but that’s no reason why you had to stop going and start vaping again.”
James quivered as he nibbled on his barely eaten sandwich. He wondered what the rumbling under his feet would mean this time. He sat still, but his eyes scoured the room for any sign that anyone else felt it. No one else ever did, except when there was a legit earth tremor. He sucked in a big puff of vape, then braced himself for whatever was coming next.
My introductory paragraph above sets an anxious mood. Readers can only imagine what kind of world James exists in and what types of things usually follow such rumblings. We can empathize with him–we can understand why he’d develop a bad habit to cope. In fact, the negative coping mechanism may indicate that this problem goes beyond standard psychological support.
Plot Point One (The inciting incident)
Every (interesting) story beginning ends with an event that propels the main character into a new world. This is sometimes called “plot point one,” or “the inciting incident.”
first things first
set up this life-changing event from the beginning.
The set up: In The Breakheart Militia, my first novel, main-character Wade has already trained at Camp Allegiance for six years. His mother died the year before. He discovers a path to an underground access to the elusive Castle Hill. Dad is about to take off on another assignment, and the rogue president is due to institute martial law. Wade’s supposed to start his first “real” job in the morning, which will help him save for a life away from Altamont. However, General Fox gives him no choice but to delay that. He needs Wade to drive him to the Cape in the morning.
An event triggers a major change for the hero, who shows reluctance over moving from the status quo into a new or unexpected world. (Hero debates whether they’ve made the right decision.)
Keep in mind: By the end of the story, the hero will be transformed. In the end, the main character will likely feel differently than in the beginning. By the time you finish your first draft, you’ll likely change elements of the beginning.
Inciting incident: General Fox awakens Wade at 3 a.m., commanding the teen to get to the camp now and to bring a gun. The general urges Wade to trust him. Being respectful of authority, Wade does as he’s asked, catapulting him into an epic, life-altering journey. –“Boom”
Debate: This decision could put a major kink in Wade’s life. Although he’s highly trained with guns, he has no desire to get caught carrying one illegally. He debates his choice even more after he picks up the general, when he’s forced to confront the violent drama he’s been trying to avoid.
in conclusion . . .
Although everyone loves a great ending, readers would never make it that far without an alluring beginning. Details matter, but so does your own unique style of writing. Even if you take a different approach to writing than what I’ve outlined above, keep in mind that people are impatient. We want instant connections.
Hone the skill of nabbing attention and keeping it right out of the gate. You’ll be all the better at repeating the process throughout the book, motivating your readers to the amazing end.
Read more: See my Nutshell Review on Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. (In her book, she breaks down the beginning and lists which beats to hit.)