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.