The first page of your manuscript is critical for more than just grabbing an agent's or editor’s attention. Readers often read the first page or two to determine whether or not to read the novel. If those pages grab them, they'll buy the book. If not, they'll put it back on the shelf. That’s a lot of pressure for 250 words.
Which is why those words need to capture the reader.
Common writing advice will tell you to "start with action," but that doesn't mean blow up a car or rob a bank—and this can actually hurt your opening not help if it.
What it really means is to start with something going on. It can be something going wrong, (my personal favorite), something revealed, something denied, something craved—the list is endless. But no matter what shape this “something” takes, there's a sense that things are about to happen, and that it won't be good for someone.
This sense of anticipation creates questions readers will want answers to. Why are the characters casing that playground? Who is that woman following them? What's the deal with these two people arguing way too loudly?
However, one question you want to avoid is, "What's going on?" A vague opening that confuses is not the type of question you want readers asking. They should be able to guess what’s going on, even if they’re not yet sure what it all means.
They know two men are watching a playground, but not why. They know a woman is tailing the protagonist, but not why or who she is. They know the protagonist is having an overly dramatic and clearly fake argument, but not why he’s doing it.
Aim for making the context of the situation clear, even if the details aren’t yet revealed. Create that mystery to pique curiosity and make readers want to know where this situation is going.
Of course, opening scenes can be challenging to write and hooking readers is easier said than done. But it’s easier to know what to do when you have a solid sense of what not to do. So…
Here are four common mistakes to avoid when crafting your open scene:
1. Having too much backstory and explanation.
Until the reader knows and cares about the characters, they don’t want to know the history of the world or the backstory of the protagonist.
They want to see a character with a problem and be drawn in by that story question.
Too much information can slow a story down and overwhelm a reader. If it’s too much work to read, they won’t read it.
Think of it like this: you walk into a party and some guy comes up to you and starts telling you all about his grandmother and how important she was to him, and how that’s affecting his current decision on whether or not to move to Baltimore and take this job he’s not sure s the right position for him. Are you intrigued? Odds are you’re looking for any excuse to get away from this bore.
To fix: Cut the backstory and look for ways to show how that backstory affects your character in that scene (If it doesn’t, that’s a big clue you don’t need to mention it at all). If it’s critical to know the protagonist is scared of dogs, don’t stop the story to explain how he was bitten when he was five, show him seeing a dog and being too scared to move.
2. Crafting a one-dimensional scene.
Some opening scenes focus on one thing and one thing only: a beautiful description, an action sequence, retrospective navel-gazing, etc.
The text is working too hard to set the scene, so there's no story yet, nor is there a character with a goal and something to lose.
Back to the party: If you walk in and the host gives you a detailed tour of the house (without you asking), odds are you’ll be bored and eager to get back to the party. Or if you walk into the middle of a complicated game in progress, and everyone ignores you and doesn’t tell you any of the rules. Sure, things are happening but you have no clue what or how to join in, so you’re just waiting to be included.
To fix: Don’t make readers feel unwelcome. Be a good host and ease your reader into the party. Introduce them to someone interesting who will be only too happy to show them around the house, share interesting facts, gossip a little and point out the people they’d might like to talk to—or avoid—during the night.
3. Using a fake opening
We’ve all read these bad boys: that prologue (or chapter one) that sets up a faux conflict to “hook” the reader, but then has very little connection to the following chapter. (A common "faux conflict" happens when authors use dreams and/or hallucinations at the beginning of a novel, one of my pet peeves...Anne.)
It’s a bait and switch, and no one likes to be tricked.
Often this includes a fast forward to an "exciting" scene later in the book. This isn't as effective as you'd think, because without the buildup to that scene, readers don’t understand why it matters—and they rarely care. If you lie to your readers, or trick them and change the book on them, there's a good chance you'll just piss them off.
At the party: Imagine you’ve been invited to a Hollywood party, and when you walk into the room you see all your favorite celebrities. You eagerly approach your favorite actor, gush all over him, and then discover he and everyone else at the party is a look-alike. Not only do you feel like a fool for buying it, but you’ll never trust your host again.
To fix: This one’s easy. Just don’t do it. Create a strong opening that works on its own. It takes just as much effort to fake an "exciting" opening as it does to fix a real opening. And since a fake opening is bound to feel flat anyway, and only seem exciting to someone who already knows the story, it's often a wasted effort.
4. Having a lazy protagonist
A lazy protagonist just sits around waiting for something to happen to her. She has nothing she wants, no goal in mind, she isn’t trying to accomplish anything—she’s just sitting around navel gazing or walking through a pretty setting. The job of a protagonist is to drive the plot, and if she’s not doing anything, the story goes nowhere.
One last trip to the party: Imagine a party where every single guest forces you to initiate all the conversation. No one talks to you unless you ask them a direct question, they don’t walk over, they don’t even make eye contact. How long before you give up and go home?
To fix: Give your protagonist something to do that matters to them. Their goal will help create that all-important story question to pull readers in and keep the story moving forward.
Openings are vital to getting someone to read your book. Don't waste those 250 chances. No matter how your novel starts, make sure it starts with the story.
Scriveners, what’s your favorite way to start a novel? What’s your least favorite trick? Are there any novel openers that are deal-breakers for you when you're buying a new book? Have you been agonizing about how to open your novel? Do you have any tips to add?
About Janice Hardy
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices.
She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University
, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.