Beginnings are difficult for most writers, but I’m here to help!
Just for the record: I hate beginnings. The first pages of my novels are an inexorably torment to write because I am such a perfectionist. But after numerous revisions, I am very proud of my first sentences and my opening scenes.
This post focuses on the “hook” every story needs in its opening scene. Without strong hooks, the reader has no reason to keep reading. A good “hook” can be an open-ended question, one that leaves the reader trying to decide what the main character will do next.
It seems like it would be obvious to start a story at the beginning of the character’s journey, but unfortunately, that’s usually not a good place to start. No matter what the genre is, there are most likely several other scenes that can be used as the opening scene. Find the one that will have the greatest impact on your readers. Think of your first line as a hook that lures your reader into the story. It is your big chance to be so ingenious that your readers will not be able to put your book down.
Build up the suspense from page one!
Like I said, it is important to catch your reader from the very start with a good “hook.” The key to an attention-grabbing first page is withholding as much backstory as possible while divulging enough to interest a reader. After the first page, a reader should be asking questions about the characters involved (who?), their motivations (what?), the story’s timeline and location (when and where?), and lastly the reason behind all this action (why?).
Published authors have the fortunate advantage of starting a novel or short story anyway they’d like. They’re an established name within the industry and already have an existing readership. However, if you’re an unpublished writer or if you’re planning to self-publish, things are not quite so simple, and agents and editors are not quite so tolerant or lenient. And remember that the competition is fierce.
Dream openers are cliché.
Avoid beginning your novel with a dream. This can create a very awkward beginning. Dreams in general are often seen in the work of beginning writers (it will red flag you to agents and editors) because it’s overdone. Therefore, dreams should be used with great care no matter where they happen in a story, but should never be used as an opening. Always attempt to open your novel with the immediate sense of the storyline.
Some skilled writing fails to connect the reader because the writer doesn’t get what the novel’s opening must do in order to hook a reader. Frequently, as I’m editing other writers, I find a gripping opening scene pages later in the story. Most often, a dump of exposition or backstory drags the story to a standstill.
For an unpublished writer, it’s absolutely essential that you grab the reader’s attention from the opener. Metaphorical hands should rise out of the first page, seize your reader by the collar, and yank them, helpless into the narrative.
This means opening with: EMOTION and ACTION and DIALOGUE.
Don’t start your story with too much description or long rants of introspection. Try to start it with an event that is actually taking place right now in the character’s life, or even better, the turning point. Your opening paragraphs should be stuffed with strong verbs and powerful nouns. The job of the opener is to draw the reader into your world with an indication of foreshadowing, upcoming conflict, or mayhem to come.
Now, ‘something actually happening’ doesn’t have to be a homicide, a violent mugging, an extraterrestrial invasion, or the epidemic of some lethal zombie virus. It could be a blackmailing scheme, or it could be a nervous and horrible first day on the job, or it could be a fierce and demonstrative custody battle in court, or even a devastating result of a medical test. It could be just about any type of inciting incident that happens to the main character and grabs the reader’s attention.
What will compel a reader to put down your book after reading the first page?
Not opening with a strong enough first sentence or that much-needed “hook” in the first paragraph to reel the reader into your world. The first sentence is essential and each should be meticulously constructed to entice the reader into needing to find out more. Readers may forgive a less than stellar first sentence; however, the first paragraph should lure them into the narrative. Don’t bore the reader with too many tedious details, long paragraphs of inner-monologue, pages of backstory, or lengthy description.
Remember, the opener needs to be fresh, original, with a great hook in the first line. Even the first paragraph. Even more than that, the first page. Each one is extremely critical and should be crafted to bait the reader into needing to find out more.
First sentences taken from my own popular novels to spark your creative muse:
BEAUTIFULLY BROKEN (book 1):
For as long as I could remember, I’d heard whispers in the shadows.
SHATTERED SILENCE (book 2):
I had always been a magnet for the strange and unusual—and socially disastrous—at my birthday parties.
MOONLIGHT MAYHEM (book 3):
My body relaxed for the first time in weeks without the fear of demon blood infecting me with Darkness.
RECKLESS REVENGE (book 4):
The worst part about being a demon hunter was the waiting.
DESTINY DISRUPTED (book 5):
There was a demon in my backyard.
At the next ominous thump, I finger the handle of the Glock 19 under my pillow.
LOST IN STARLIGHT (Volume One):
I don’t usually stalk boys, but if I hadn’t been spying on Hayden Lancaster, I never would’ve seen the mind-blowing fork-bending incident.
UNDER SUNLESS SKIES (Volume 2):
My dad just teleported into our living room.
Walking across campus alone at night was just plain dumb...and potentially dangerous.
Do you understand what I mean by a “gripping hook” in your first sentence?
Here are some more examples of enticing first sentences that will “hook” the reader:
My uncle was murdered on Saturday, and I inherited his so-called haunted house.
The shrill sound of the phone ringing in the middle of the night is never good sign.
It figured that the first thing Marilyn won in her life was a prize she did not even want.
As a groundskeeper of Pleasant Hills Cemetery, I often witness some very peculiar things.
Do any of these examples spark your own creative muse?
In each case, something is happening now, and the reader is compelled to keep reading to find out what’s going on and what’s going to happen next. The information with which many beginner writers tend to fill their opening pages (descriptions of place, character or, worst of all, too much backstory) can wait until the reader is firmly hooked.
For more tips and tools, please check out The Writer's Guide to Plotting a Novel
How many times do you revise your first line?
What are some of your favorite opening sentences?
Please let me know in the comments!