One of the most common reasons why editors reject manuscripts—and why readers stop reading a book—is that the opening fails to draw them into the story. It has probably happened to you as a reader too. You read the first few pages of a book, then set it down and never picked it up again.
So why are openings so important?
Your book can have a suspenseful action scene on page 38 and the world’s best-written love scene on page 251, but your readers will never find out if they stop reading after just a few pages. The opening is critical because it’s your one chance to capture a reader’s or an editor’s attention.
What are common problems in first chapters?
Here’s a list of the most common problems:
1) Slow, static beginning
I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that open with the main character thinking about her life while nothing is really happening. Please don’t do that. The first chapter should contain as little static information as possible.
Instead, begin the story “in medias res”—in the middle of things. Begin as close as possible to the inciting incident that changes the character’s life.
You can start just before the change and show us a bit of the main character’s life before the inciting incident, but make sure it’s not a boring scene that shows, for example, the main character waking up and getting dressed. Make it a scene that puts the character in a conflict, that shows her interacting with others, or that reveals an important trait. Instead of passively sitting around, thinking, the main character should be active in some way.
2) Lengthy descriptions
Don’t start your book with descriptions of the setting, the weather, or your characters (“It was a dark and stormy night…”). There’ll be time for that later in the book. Instead of static descriptions, show us the character in action.
3) Too much backstory
Don’t start your book with a flashback or with backstory that explains the character’s past or the history of the setting. The first chapter is not the place for to write about past events because the reader doesn’t care about the characters yet and isn’t firmly anchored in the present yet.
Show us the character acting in the present first, and fill in the backstory in bits and pieces later.
We will blog more about info dumping and backstory in the next blog post on writing tips.
4) Loss of focus
Some openings wander from one subject to the next and leave the reader wondering what the point is. To avoid that loss of focus, introduce the main character’s goal early on. It doesn’t need to be the goal that she has for the rest of the book, but she still has to want something in the first scene. The reader will continue reading to see if the main character achieves what she set out to do.
5) Point of view problems
In some manuscripts, we don’t know whose head we’re in until the third or fourth paragraph. We might have description or dialogue, but we don’t know through whose eyes and ears we’re seeing and hearing it.
Establish your point of view right away, and make sure you don’t head hop between different POV characters. For the first scene, maybe even the first chapter, it’s best to stay in your main character’s point of view, so readers will know whose story this is.
You can read more about POV problems in our previous blog post.
6) Too many characters
If you introduce too many characters in the first chapter, readers will become confused. Readers can’t remember all their names. Limit the number of characters you introduce in the first chapter to three or less. Keep the spotlight on your main character(s).
So what makes a good opening?
- Start the story “in media res” with an active character, who has a goal and interacts with others to achieve that goal.
- Introduce some kind of conflict early on. Conflict doesn’t mean that the main character has to argue with someone. It simply means that the main character runs into obstacles when she tries to achieve her goal.
- Make sure the conflict you introduce matters. Readers need to know that something important is at stake. What does the main character have to gain if she achieves her goal? What will be lost if she doesn’t? It doesn’t need to be a life-or-death matter, but it needs to be important to the main character. The first chapter doesn’t need to spell out what’s at stake for the rest of the book, but we still need a conflict that matters.
- Keep the first chapter in “real time,” without stopping the forward momentum to explain backstory.
- Start the story with the focus on the main character. Ideally, we meet the main character in the first paragraph.
- Keep the point of view clear and consistent from the start. We’re firmly entrenched in the head of the main character.
- Introduce the reader only to a limited number of characters in the first chapter.
- The trick to keep readers reading is to make them ask questions. You as the writer have to create a need to know what’s going on and what will happen next. Here’s an example from Alison Grey’s Hot Line:
“Hi, this is Chantal. Thank you for calling,” Christina breathed into the phone.
Why does she introduce herself as Chantal if her name is Christina? Why is she “breathing” into the phone? Instead of explaining that Christina is a phone sex operator, the story shows her in action and lets the reader figure it out. That’s one reason why showing is better than telling. Read more about show don’t tell here.
- The opening should pose the story question that readers want to have answered by the end of the book. The story question in my newest novel, Something in the Wine, is: Will Annie and Drew manage to trick Annie’s brother?
So what are your favorite opening lines? What are the things that make you stop reading a book after a few paragraphs or pages?
Please leave a comment, and check back for our blog post about info dumps and backstory on December 19.