As you shape your beginning, it’s very important to introduce only enough backstory and conflict to make us care about the characters. If a bit of information can be saved for later without undermining our initial emotional attachment, save it.
The beginning of your novel is absolutely crucial.
It’s the part especially I fixate on the most. The part that I tear my hair out over. Because here’s the honest truth: you can write a super compelling book, but if that opening chapter bores your reader to tears, or if it lacks imagination and a hook of some kind, or if it features a common cliche, you’re in trouble.
You do not want to spend a year or longer on a novel that’s really, really great… but has a terrible first ten pages. Or mediocre even.
When I’m revising my work, I pay close attention to those first ten pages. I want them to do so much. Intrigue the reader. Excite the reader. Entice the reader to go on. Give enough backstory and conflict, but not too much.
I’ve written twenty novels since 2010. Figuring out how to begin a story is something I’ve had a lot of practice with, and I do feel like I’ve gotten better at this part of the writing process in the last few years.
But it still remains a struggle, of course. I’ve agonized over the opening chapter of my most recent novel, trying to make sure it works.
You’ll hear a lot of advice about what to do in those opening pages, but one thing we can all agree on you should avoid is opening with a cliche. With something we’ve all seen before in a hundred other books.
Mary Kole talks about many of these cliches in Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Here are five of them you should avoid at all costs!
1. Open with a huge block paragraph of description.
This is the number one no-no. When I see a huge block paragraph of description on page one, I’ll probably start reading and give the opening chapter a chance… but I also might not.
Block paragraphs are hard on the eyes, and the agents and editors who pick up your novel likely won’t want to see them so early in your manuscript before they’ve become invested in the characters and story.
Feel free to open with a fully formed paragraph, fine. Your novel doesn’t need to open with one-sentence paragraphs to entice your reader to read further. But you should definitely think about how long is too long when it comes to the paragraphs on your first page. Is something urgent happening in them?
Or are the paragraphs all about description? Description of the setting, description of your protagonist. You have so much time to integrate description. Don’t do it in the first paragraph unless you have a very good reason to.
Be wary of description in your opening pages unless that description very much adds something crucial!
2. Open with your main character waking up.
This one is probably the most obvious, but I have totally done it before. I’ve accidentally started a novel not just once but twice with my protagonist waking up in the morning, and it wasn’t until the revision process where I realized the horrible mistake I had made.
Opening your novel with your character waking up is most often a cliche. Especially if it’s a boring moment of your character waking up in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
You want to open your novel on a unique image, a compelling moment that draws your reader into the conflict and world of your characters. Don’t ruin what might otherwise be a great novel by opening with a cliche like this one.
It might seem like the easy way into your story, but almost 100% of the time, it’s just an excuse to shoot yourself in the foot long before you’re even started writing Chapter 2.
3. Open in the middle of an action scene.
Now this one can work in specific circumstances, but you have to be really careful with it.
I tried doing this on a recent YA thriller, and I thought it worked great, a big hook happening in the opening sentence that drew you into an extremely intense car chase that lasted the first seven pages of the novel.
After having that opening chapter workshopped during my MFA, and after having my literary agent look at it, I soon realized that opening in a scary action scene didn’t ultimately work because my readers didn’t yet care about the characters.
My characters didn’t get a real introduction of any kind until Chapter 2, and that element annoyed not just some, but all of my readers. They recognized what I was trying to do by starting right with the action, but everyone suggested opening on a quieter moment before the mayhem would be a better way to go.
Now the car chase begins in Chapter 4 of the novel, and the first three chapters deal with the characters first. And upon re-reading the book recently, I realized how crucial it was to make you care about the two main characters before the action begins.
You can certainly experiment opening with action in your novel. You want to start with conflict as early as possible, that’s for sure.
Just keep in mind that if the reader doesn’t yet care about your protagonist, you might be better served to open on a quieter moment, not halfway through a chase scene.
4. Open with lots of dialogue.
This is kind of similar to opening with action because in some regard you think you’re hooking the reader in by using dialogue. It might be colorful dialogue, striking dialogue.
It might be back-and-forth banter that makes you laugh out loud! Or grit your teeth in anticipation!
But here’s the problem with having dialogue be the first thing your readers see — they don’t know who the characters are yet. Just like with action, opening with dialogue is tricky because the reader’s not going to be invested in the conversation due to a lack of investment in any characters.
I think one line of dialogue, followed immediately by action, can potentially be a solid way to start a novel. One line of dialogue that strikes a mood, or that shows off the voice of your main character, and then going right into a few short paragraphs of conflict and tension that reveals who your protagonist is. That might work great, actually.
But when a reader is thrown into the middle of a conversation, two or more people talking back and forth where there’s not a clue indication of who’s talking or who these characters even are, that reader might put the book down before it’s ever had a chance to begin.
5. Open with a dream.
Again, the ultimate cliche. And this one is the worst because you might draw your reader into your novel for a page or two or three, and then as soon as you reveal that opening tension was just your protagonist’s dream, you will likely alienate 95% or more of your readers.
Even worse, once the reader is annoyed by discovering those awesome opening pages were a dream, then the reader is annoyed a second time by reading about your protagonist waking up in bed from that dream and going about his or her morning!
So in effect you’re making two fatal mistakes here — opening with a dream and opening with your main character waking up.
I wrote a novel in recent years about a teenager who suffers from night terrors, and I initially thought a perfect way to open that novel was to drop the reader in the middle of one of that character’s night terrors, only for the reader to discover halfway through Chapter 1 that it was all just a dream.
But in this case I stopped myself before I even went there because it’s not a good idea to open a novel with a dream. Avoid, avoid, avoid!
These are just a few of the beginning cliches you should avoid.
There are plenty more of them, of course. Like not starting with a conflict. Like starting with too much world building. Like starting with too many characters. Like starting with too much backstory, as Mary Kole talks about.
Finding the right way and right place to start your novel comes with lots and lots of practice as a writer. You write enough fiction and you read enough books and watch enough movies and you start to understand the kinds of opening that work well, and that don’t work at all.
Just keep in the back of your mind that the opening ten pages, and yes, even the very first page, are crucial to the success of your novel, there’s no way around it.
So take some extra time to think about how you’re going to start it. You’ll be much better off in the long run!