When you lift the curtains on your story and welcome readers into your exciting new world, there are multiple challenges you must overcome in those initial moments.
First, there’s the challenge of creating a strong first page – an instantly gripping opener that convinces the reader that yes, this seems like a journey well worth taking. Crafting this entrance in the most appealing way possible isn’t the easiest of tasks, but you can get some help with that in our article The 5 Elements of a Good First Page.
But once the initial tone, voice, and intrigue of your first few pages are set, another challenge arises – because it’s time to come down from that initial high and begin your first act in earnest.
To help settle your reader in and keep them turning the pages as the action ramps up, here are a few useful features you should strive to include – and others you should avoid – in your latest, memorable beginning.
✔ Zoom in
Paint a vivid picture of the setting in your reader’s imagination. As you draft the story opening, imagine it as a film. Think of how filmmakers begin their scenes with an establishing shot – something that grounds us in a wider location before we zoom in. Think a forest, a temple, or a school.
Next, they would place the setting into context and establish a closer sense of place by moving the camera in for more detail. Perhaps it’s a wooden hut in the forest, a prayer mat in the temple, or the inside of a bustling classroom.
And then – you’re probably playing it out in your head right now – the zooming continues as we settle on a specific character. The lumberjack tying his boots, the monk in orange robes approaching his mat, or the bored student doodling in her textbook.
This isn’t to say that you translate this cinematic process straight to the page – you’re writing a novel, not a screenplay – but keep this sequence of information in mind, and be sure to deliver on each level of the ‘zoom’ as you write.
In prose, a mere few sentences could bring all of these together: introducing a character, setting the immediate surrounds, and building a sense of scale in the wider setting. Do this, and your beginning immediately feels like it’s taking part in a fleshed-out world, rather than a fake plasterboard set.
✔ Use all the senses
Rookie writers often focus on the visual and neglect everything else (thinking too cinematically, perhaps?). To conjure a vivid image in people’s minds, you need to engage all their senses.
What does the setting smell like? Is there an odor or fragrance in the air? If a character is eating, what are the flavors they’re picking up and how do they react to them? Are there ambient sounds? If so, are they gentle or jarring?
One of the most difficult parts of creating immersive scenes can be coming up with accurate descriptions for sensory input without going overboard on needless (or trite) metaphor. The only way around this is practice, practice, practice. Get out in the world and try and experience the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of a location similar to the one you’re writing about. Scribble a range of descriptive thoughts (a selection for each sense) down in your notebook to use later.
After all, you don’t want to be using the same description over and over again throughout your novel every time someone drinks something.
✔ Show, don’t tell
“Don’t tell me it’s night, show me the glint of moonlight off broken glass.”
A classic piece of advice that applies here is to show not tell. It means that you should replace flat explanations with a clearer mental image for the reader.
Tell: It was raining
Show: Rainwater bounced off the hood of the car, exploding in a fine mist.
Showing is like an artist painting an image – but your words are the brush and paint, and your reader’s mind is the canvas. As in the previous point, showing mostly comes from using sensory information to describe the scene, rather than flat information.
This draws your audience deeper into the world you’ve created, which is essential in your opening scenes.
✔ Know your character introduction style
The first character you introduce when the ball starts rolling will usually – but not always – be your main protagonist. For some writers, it’s considered old-fashioned to give details of a character’s appearance.
Let’s compare two authors’ descriptions of wizards. First, JRR Tolkien’s first description of the wizard Gandalf, written in the 1930s:
…an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which a white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.
Next, Terry Pratchett’s description of wizard Mustrum Ridcully written in the 1990s:
There was just too much of him, for one thing. It wasn’t that he was particularly big, it was just that he had the kind of huge personality that fits any available space. He’d get roaring drunk at supper and that was fine and acceptable wizardly behaviour. But then he’d go back to his room and play darts all night long and leave at five in the morning to go duck hunting. He shouted at people. He tried to jolly them along. And he hardly ever wore proper robes.
From Tolkien, you get a color picture – but it’s static. You know what Gandalf looks like, but don’t have an impression of his personality. Those details come throughout the book’s adventures. Contrasted with Pratchett’s description, you don’t know Ridcully’s appearance at all – only his actions. You are left to come up with your own impression.
It’s not uncommon for a modern novel to never mention the color of a protagonists hair, eyes or skin. If you are happy to gift readers the freedom to have their own images of characters, that’s okay. On the other hand, you may want to give some guidance.
When the film adaptation of his novel The Martian (which we investigated with AutoCrit here) came up against controversy for allegedly replacing Asian characters with non-Asian actors, author Andy Weir himself was explicit that he never described the physical appearance of the characters.
Weir said, “… unless a physical description is somehow relevant to the plot, OK, you know he’s missing a leg, something like that… then I don’t physically describe my characters at all.”
The reason audiences disagreed with the choice of actors is that every reader had complete freedom to imagine the physical appearance of the characters. Without any guidance, these views were all very different – so people were bound to disagree.
If the possibility of that happening bothers you, then you’ll want to describe your creations in more detail – so when your novel is adapted into a film (fingers crossed!), critics don’t argue about casting choices.
Either way, it’s all about creating a certain experience for your reader. Do you want them to project themselves as deeply as possible into the protagonist? Or do you want to form your very own distinct and iconic character that stands firmly apart from anyone else? Set those expectations early, so the reader can quickly settle into your intended style of storytelling.
✔ Kick things off
The beginning of your book should start the story – it isn’t free space for you to add superfluous content while you try to establish your characters and their ‘normal’ way of life. Adding chapter after chapter of bland story that offers no clue as to the central plot or conflict of your novel is an easy way to send your book right back to the shelf.
Make sure your inciting incident happens early on. The moment everything changes and the path to conflict begins should be clear within the first few pages.
A secondary point to this element is your pacing. Keep up the pace with your beginning – a collection of initial chapters that are a heady slog to get through will not bode well for the rest of your book, no matter how much it may ramp up. Capture reader investment early, and you’ll gain the freedom to slow down later on.
✗ Use the weather in exchange for atmosphere
It was a dark and stormy night…
Lots of books open with descriptions of the weather, so why shouldn’t you do it? Well, you can… but it’s rather lazy writing and has become a cliché. If you are going to describe the weather, keep it brief, and make sure you show the weather – not just tell readers what it is.
A dark night doesn’t automatically generate atmosphere. Gale winds don’t create tension just because someone is outside. Weather can indeed be symbolic, but moments like that are better saved to augment later, more character-driven sequences once the reader has gotten to know your protagonists better.
✗ Blast straight into action
Action builds excitement and helps foster tension in a story, but as a technique, it works best when the reader cares about the fate of characters. If your character has just been introduced, chances are readers won’t be particularly emotionally invested in them.
That means no tension. Let things build up a little and leave the all-out action scenes until readers have established a relationship with the characters.
This is different from pacing, however – so even though you might not be launching with a bombastic action sequence, you should still keep the pace of your prose at a swift tempo.
Note also that this isn’t a total no-no, as you could indeed open your story in the midst of an epic, brutal battle and allow your characters to come to life amid the throng – but it takes a deft author’s hand to successfully jump straight into such a scenario without lessening its impact.
✗ Be a perfectionist
For a first draft, get the basics down and don’t edit too early on in the writing process.
A story opening is important – it’s those initial chapters that make a person decide if they’ll carry on reading or put the book down – and awareness of this importance can make writers worry about getting it absolutely perfect.
Yes, it’s likely you will revise this part of the book more than any other, but don’t fret over creating multiple drafts. Give yourself the time, the space, and the freedom to find the perfect words. It may take many attempts to get an opening you’re happy with – and that’s fine.
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