“Once you get past the first four chapters, the book really picks up.”
Has anyone ever told you that? I’ve heard that more than once, and I’ve even fallen for it a couple of times. I end up forcing myself to read a few pages before I realize I’m boring myself – why would waste hours of my time in hopes that the book gets better?
I’m not as bad as the purists (who only read the first line of a book), but I won’t read a book that doesn’t immediately interest me. I usually give it a chapter or two, but if I’m not interested by then, I won’t keep reading. Get my attention.
The first pages of your novel have a lot of responsibility. You need to give the reader a sense of place, time, genre, theme – readers need to get a feel for the story right away, and you need to do all of that without putting anyone to sleep. It’s a fine balance between showing and telling, between description and lulling.
There are lots of places to find tips on how to start your novel, but I’m going to give you a few suggestions on what you shouldn’t do:
1. Start with a car chase: You want to start with action, but start with appropriate action. Don’t put a car chase in a sweet romance. Likewise, you might not want to start a political thriller with a casual phone conversation. Know your main characters and figure out what they do – even if it’s a trip to the coffee shop – and start with that.
2. Start with a secondary character: I haven’t seen this much in published manuscripts, but I see it regularly when I’m editing. Don’t introduce me to a character who disappears in three chapters. The beginning of your novel lays the groundwork for the rest of the story – if you start with a minor character, it’s a let down when he disappears. It also makes me cautious about caring for other characters, never really sure who’s important and who isn’t. Start with the big guys.
3. Just write. This is a good plan when you’re trying to get words onto paper, but when it comes to the finer points of the craft, you need to start by reading. Pick up some of your favorite books, especially the ones that grabbed you from the first page, and see how those authors did it. Let the masters guide you.
What are your favorite book openings – how did the author capture your attention?