The old cliche says you never get a second chance to make a first impression. I’m quite sure many writing gurus have told you that especially applies to novels. Well, I happen to agree. The first sentence, the first few paragraphs, the first few pages, and the first chapter all set the tone for the rest of the book, and it is critical for you as a writer to nail them. I for one know I’ve put away a few critically acclaimed books because the first few pages didn’t capture my interest. Your story has a very limited time frame to grab and keep the readers attention. Slow builds are fine, but there still has to be something there to make the reader want to turn the next page.
Once, I had critiqued a friend’s manuscript after Beta reading
it. My critique was that the story started too pedestrian. The protagonist
spent the first few pages going through the motions of her daily life, and
there was nothing particularly engaging about what was happening or who it was
happening to. I was not compelled in any way to read any further. If your story
suffers from that, then you will have a hard time attracting an agent,
publisher or new reader.
So now the question becomes “how can I tailor my beginning to grab the reader’s attention?” There are a few different approaches you can take, and they all work well, depending on the context of your story. Here are a few.
1. Start With Some Action.
If your story has heavy action in it, you can’t go wrong with
starting the story with some insane high octane action scenes. The James Bond
franchise had practicality made this an art form. You start the story by
getting the adrenaline flowing and injecting that sense of excitement and
danger right at the outset. This is a great option for Thrillers.
2. Start At A Crucial Moment.
For this one, you need to find one of the most pivotal moments of your story, where everything is hanging in the balance, and start your story right at that predicament. That way the stakes are established right off the bat, the reader is thrown right into the story, and there is even a little mystery added as to how the characters got to that situation. A High Fantasy story I’m working on actually starts at the “Final Battle” between the main hero and his nemesis.
3. Establish The Character
If you are looking to have a slow build for the core situations
presented in your book, or your story is more character-driven, then you need
to establish who the characters are immediately, and why a reader should care
what happens to them. That means giving them an opportunity right off the bat
to showcase their personalities, their quirks and their lifestyles. I did this
for the first chapter of The Hand You’re Dealt. The story was more about Jay
and Tika’s growth as characters than any major plot, so I started the story by
introducing Jay (and a bit later Tika), allowing them to talk and interact with
people and adjust to their new surroundings. You get a good sense of who they
are as people and the charisma they possess, so you are compelled to follow
them around and see what happens to them.
4. State The Problem
Another good way to start the story is to dive right into the
problem at hand. Every story is really a chronicle of someone trying to solve a
problem. So why not just cut to the chase and let the reader know right at the
outset what the problem is? I did this for both The Leopard Man and for Double Entry.
The Leopard Man started with Ashlynn’s dream about meeting a dangerous man, and
Double Entry started with Dana’s ex-boyfriend and baby-father hiring her at his
firm. Now the reader is automatically asking themselves where this story is
going, and maybe even how did your protags get to this point.
5. Build The World
If you have a compelling, unique, vibrant or quirky setting, you
have the option of starting with a description of that world. This one can be a
bit tricky to pull off, because you are trying to make your reader care about
your setting and that world before they even meet the principal characters. But
with this approach, the key is to really highlight what makes your setting
different. And you could also immerse your reader into the world, letting them
experience all of the sights and sounds and other aspects of life in that
setting so they really feel like they are there. This is what I did in Godmode,
where the first few scenes were spent with Elijah exploring his bizarre new
surroundings. There wasn’t a lot of character exploration at that time, because
he was already disoriented by his new surroundings, and a lot of time was spent
just reacting to the things he saw, heard or smelled as he made his way through
that first floor.
6. Play With Time
This is an expansion of starting at a crucial moment. A trope of
storytelling is to start the story near or at the end, and then once the
reader/viewer is hooked, rewind the story back to it’s true beginning and go
from there, explaining how the protag got to the point where the story started.
Try implementing one or more of these at the start of your story, and you should be able to put together an engaging sequence to grip the reader’s attention and keep them turning the pages. One thing is certain, though: by the end of the first chapter the reader should know what the central problem is, and have a good idea of what the stakes are.