Brilliant Beginnings: Engaging Readers on Page One
A brilliant beginning takes your breath away and steals time. It makes you forget yourself and draws you in. You won’t emerge until hours later when you’re pulled out by a knock on the door—a knock you’re quite certain, just for a second, is a dragon. You know upon reading just a page of such a book what you’ve found: the perfect beginning.
Strong beginnings not only set the stage, they let readers know what they’re getting into, what your voice is like, who the hero is, and why they should care. Authors know this better than anybody, and so spend an inordinate amount of time fiddling with—or completely rewriting—their first chapters. And for good reason: first impressions kill. Readers decide whether or not to buy your book within a page. Editors sometimes decide within a paragraph. You have so little time to hook your reader, it’s no wonder it sets authors to hyperventilating.
But how to write that most brilliant of beginnings? If you look it up, there are enough damning reviews of bad first chapters that you might suppose it’s better to just not have one at all. And it’s true that when editing, the number one thing I ask authors to change is the first chapter—sometimes even cutting it altogether. But it’s a mistake to condemn these clichés entirely. Each cliché beginning springs from a place of resonance—and that resonance is something worth looking into. I’ve delved into a couple of the most common false starts, what they do right, what they do less than right, and what you can take from them to make your own perfect beginning.
False Start: Waking Up
The Idea: The number one piece of advice found on the internet about starting novels is to never, ever--on pain of the groans of a million jaded readers--start with your character waking up. And yet, this has to be the single most popular way for writers to start their new novels. Followed by a yawn, a look in a mirror that describes the hero, and a brief depiction of the hero in their natural habitat.
What It Gets Right: Waking up is one thing just about everyone has in common. It’s the ultimate common ground! And it is really good to think about how you’re going to get the reader to identify with your character, as that goes a long way to getting them to like your character. There is also something to be said for establishing what is normal for that world, to ground your reader and make their journey more dramatic and the magic or magical. But…
What It Gets Wrong: The number one cause of this kind of beginning is the desire to keep the cool stuff secret so it’ll make a good surprise later. Don’t. Don’t hide the good stuff. Surprises are overrated, and we need at least a glimpse of the good stuff early because otherwise we will never get to it. Waking up is a little too universal, in that it doesn’t usually tell us anything about your character, and so doesn’t really help us to identify with them. It is safe to assume that we will understand your character got up in the morning when we see them awake.
The Takeaway: Start with something a little more unique to your character—something that defines them as an individual. Like start with them sneaking out their window at night to go play midnight Frisbee in the park. Immediately, you get an image of a hero like that—which provides common ground in another area: the content of their character.
False Start: Fight Scenes
The Idea: Start with a fight scene! Action is exciting, and your reader will be hooked by the breakneck pace and your hero’s badass skills, and they will be anxious to see what happens.
What It Gets Right: It is good to start with something exciting and engaging—something with tension that presents a conflict of some sort. It’s also good to show us that your hero is cool. If you hero starts out as pathetic—and they aren’t funny or emotionally gripping—then it will be very uncomfortable to read about them. And it’s good to showcase fighting if that’s one of your strengths, and one of the hallmarks of your hero and their story.
What It Gets Wrong: What is exciting about a fight scene is rarely the actual fight--it’s what’s at stake. And it’s hard to have anything meaningful at stake when you haven’t established why people should care about your character yet. Of course, you can take short cuts to tell people they should care by making them attractive, skilled, or a victim. But use these short-cuts to empathy at your own peril. Is the only reason your character is worth caring about really because they are beautiful? Or because someone wants to hurt them?
The Takeaway: As New York Times best-selling author Paul S. Kemp says, a fight scene should either further or establish character, plot, or setting. You can certainly start with a fight scene—but make sure it’s the kind of fight scene that establishes the identity of your character as something more than a hacking machine. Also, consider other kinds of action as well—there are many tension-filled, conflict-ridden ways to start a scene, like the tomb-crawling, trap-dodging beginning of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the tension-filled card game that almost erupts into a showdown at the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
False Start: Origin Stories… of the Universe
The Idea: On the First Day, the gods created elves, and they were perfect. Except for that one god, who created humans by accident (I just can’t get the durned ears right!). And so the world was created from the dropped bits of starstuff and clay that he discarded when trying to make elves… And so forth.
What It Gets Right: It often feels as though these scenes were inspired by the epic sweeps of the camera, the stirring music, and the dramatic voiceovers so successful in movies. And wanting to evoke that immediate sense of awe and wonder, and to ground you reader quickly and solidly in the fantastic world you’ve created, is admirable. It’s also wonderful that you took the time to create a fantasy or sci-fi world worth showing off.
What It Gets Wrong: These beginnings are something that, while effective in the movies, are not so effective in books. Movies have unquestionably changed the way we write—from the slow motion bullet dodge, to the flickering approach of undead, to the cinematic way we write fight scenes. But these sweeping shots that a movie can do in a split second take pages and pages to get across on paper. And they kind of lose their epic effect that way.
The Takeaway: The instinctive drive to evoke a mood and to create an immersive fantasy world is good. Your first scene should definitely focus on mood. But the tactics that work so brilliantly in film aren’t the best for books. Try weaving in your setting, instead of telling your readers. And think instead about what books have given you that same epic feeling—and how they did it.