Crafting a Strong Beginning
We all know beginnings are important, right? When we shop for books, there are a lot of different elements that draw your attention: the cover, the title, the description, etc. But what really makes you decide whether that book is coming home with you is the first page.
So, it is vital that you grab your readers’ attention as soon as possible. And you want to make sure to give them a good sense of what your book really is. See my Reader Contract post.
For me, almost always, the characters are the main selling point. So I’m going to recommend that you get the character on the page as soon as possible. And it’s important that what they’re doing on that page is representative of who they are as a character.
People make snap judgments about other people all the time. You can’t help it. It’s hard-wired into being human. It’s how you have missed connections on the subway or the idea of love at first sight. You encounter someone and every single detail you take in about them helps you form an impression of who they are. That impression might change the more time you spend with them, but that first snap judgment you make is going to set the basis for everything you learn about the character for the rest of the book.
So think about your character. For the majority of protagonists, by the very nature of them being protagonists, they’re going to be active. They’re going to be doing things that affect the story. They also are going to have reasons for the things that they do, which means that they are going to want things. They’re going to want to get with that boy, they’re going to want the world to not end, they’re going to want to stop the villain. And the things that they want show us who they are as a person. So, a good way to introduce us to your character is to have them want something. That want doesn’t have to be the driving force of the whole story. You don’t have to get that onto Page 1. It can be something as simple as, “I am starving, and I really, really, really want a sandwich.” (See Aladdin.)
The actions they take to get that sandwich will tell me as a reader a lot about who they are as a character, which is why it’s important that they take action. It shows me who they are instead of you having to tell me.
The other thing that grabs my attention in a bookstore is the voice. Emily says if you can make her laugh on the first page, she will buy the book and take it home. And I think that is a great goal for an author. It’s always good to pull an emotional reaction out of your reader. A laugh is an emotional reaction. A gasp is an emotional reaction. Sadness or going “Awww” are all emotional reactions, and you should aim for the one that best matches your book and character. If your character is snarky and humorous and witty, then they should show that upfront. If your book as a whole is going to make me break down in tears, maybe you don’t start by making me laugh on Page 1. Perhaps you instead instill a sense of drama, or start with a funeral. (I don’t know, I don’t read a lot of sad books. I let Lauren do that.)
The important thing here is that you want your reader to know what your book is, what it feels like, who your characters are, and your voice as a writer as soon as possible.
“Before I even opened my eyes, I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t in my bed like I should be.”
The last line of the first page is “But the most damning evidence of all was the muscular, bare back of a half-naked—at least I hoped it was just half, since I couldn’t see beneath the navy blanket wrapped around his hips—guy lying beside me.”
Just from those two lines, we can tell that Taylor has a problem. And that it’s one that she’s probably not prepared to handle, judging from the panicked, “At least I hope it was just half.” That’s enough to get a reader intrigued. And then, over the next few pages, Taylor immediately starts taking action to get herself out of it, including army crawling around the floor trying to find her damn sandals so she can leave. Her actions say a lot about her as a character, how desperate she is to get out, and Jenn’s sense of humor. And if those things appeal to you, you’re going to love this book.
Of course, this isn’t the only way to start something. You don’t have to start with your main character in trouble if the most important thing in your book is the setting or the time period or your beautiful flowing language. Start with what’s most important for your book.
So as you’re writing or revising, pay special attention to your beginning, and recognize that it might be something that you have to go back to once you’ve finished your novel. Because the other thing about beginnings is that sometimes it can be hard to tell where a story really starts until you know how it ends.
But that’s a whole other post.
What are some of your favorite beginnings? Share in the comments!