Whether you pursue self-publishing or traditional publishing, the beginning of your book is extremely important. You can write the best novel ever, but if your first chapter or even your first five pages don’t entice the reader, the world may never know. Your beginning needs to catch the reader’s attention whether that reader is a literary agent, a publisher, or an actual reader.
1. Start in the middle of things. If you give a character who’s doing something like cleaning blood off the floor, as readers, we are going to want to know more. How did the blood get there? Whose blood is it? Did this character kill someone? Did he witness a murder? Don’t open with your character getting in the car and starting the engine; begin in the middle of the car chase.
2. Give us an interesting character. Show the reader right away why he or she should care about your main character. Show us something that makes this character unique. Show us something that will make us emotionally connect with or root for this character. If we start with our main character being bullied, for example, we will automatically feel sympathy for him. If our main character is running down the street to catch the bus, wearing two different shoes, and talking excitedly on her cell phone, we will automatically know a great deal about who she is and what kind of story this is.
3. Begin with a line of dialogue. A line of dialogue can leave us wanting more. If your first line is something like, “I can’t believe you told her! You can’t keep a secret?” we will immediately be wondering why this person is so mad, what their secret is, why the other person told it, who the other person told it to, etc. etc. A line of dialogue can also tell us immediately what kind of story we are in for. In THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, Jonathan Tropper begins the novel with: “Dad’s dead,” Wendy says offhandedly, like it’s happened before. This lets us know right off the bat that this is going to be a dark comedy about family relationships.
4. Give us something unique. Begin your novel with something unexpected, an unusual image, a strange interaction, an odd scene. In CINDER by Marissa Meyer, she opens with a cyborg Cinderella taking off her too-small metal foot. I don’t know about you guys, but if I read about a cyborg Cinderella taking her foot off, I want to keep reading.
5. Show, don’t tell. I know, I know. You’ve heard this one before. Now, I don’t believe there is never a time for telling in fiction, but the first scene is not the best time to do so. Show us something that is happening. Don’t spend time giving us lengthy description of the landscape or clunky exposition. There is a place for description and exposition, but it’s alright to not give the reader all of the information in the first five pages. In fact, don’t. It will make the reader want to know what’s going on enough to get to page six.
I will say that while the beginning is important, don’t worry about it when writing a first draft. When I’m writing a first draft, my beginning is almost always boring. Otherwise I might stare at my blank document thinking “okay, I need to start this in a way that will get it published and sell!” and then never write anything. So don’t worry about the beginning the first time around, but when you go back to revise, really think about where the best place is to begin your story.
To focus more specifically on the first line, check out my video, How to Write a Great Opening Line for Your Novel.