We’re often told our stories need to open with a bang. If our editors/agents/readers aren’t hooked by the first page, even the first sentence, we’re doomed. They’ll yawn, close the book, and find something else that tickles their fancy.
So what makes a great opening? Here are a few ingredients for a great beginning:
1. The Characters. We immediately need one or more characters to focus on. We want them to be interesting and unique. Right from the start we want to get to know them, and get to know what’s motivating them. We want to cheer for them and to like them.
Here’s an example from Jo Beverley’s “Deirdre and Don Juan”. Lord Everdon, or Don Juan, receives a disturbing letter. Here’s the opening line:
“The news of his wife’s death caught the Earl of Everdon in his mistress’s bed.”
Well, that made me sit up and pay attention! But why should I like an adulterer? Because in the page and a half of this first scene, Ms. Beverley skillfully turns around that first sentence and makes Everdon a sympathetic character, one we immediately begin to care about. It turns out his wife abandoned him ten years ago, shortly after their marriage, and he knows that he will now have to marry and produce an heir. We can sense his terror at being abandoned again by a second wife: “Then Mark Juan Carlos Renfrew, Earl of Everdon and lord of a score of minor properties, walked through the streets of Mayfair feeling vulnerable for the first time in his adult life.” When I read that, my heart went out to the dashing Earl.
2. The Conflict. The reader has to get a hint from the very beginning what the conflict is going to be. Something is not going the way the character had expected. In the above story the conflict hinted at is Everdon’s search for bride number two when he’s still scarred from his marriage to bride number one. Here’s another example of a hint of conflict in the first line:
“The first item Dax found was a red bikini top”-- The Drop-In Bride by Margaret St. George, Harlequin American Romance.
I’m intrigued immediately by the first line. When we read on we find that Dax is a famous author trying to write his next best seller on a private island in the Caribbean, but the writing is not going well. And then he finds a beautiful woman washed up on his beach. So we know from the start that the conflict is going to involve Dax’s writer’s block and this mysterious woman.
Nancy Kress, in “Beginnnings, Middles and Ends” by Writer’s Digest Books, says that the problem or conflict is related to change. Something changes from the beginning of the scene to the end. Here are some possibilities from Ms. Kress:
- A character discovers that the task he is starting is more complicated than he’d hoped.
- A character learns a disturbing piece of information.
- A character arrives someplace new.
- A character meets someone who will significantly alter his life; even in the first scene this new person has begun to change the characters immediate goals or ideas.
- An event occurs – a murder, an alien landing, a letter arriving – that will lead to significant change. This change is hinted at in the first scene.
3. The Tone. The opening sets the tone for the rest of the book. If the book is to be a thriller, it wouldn’t open with slapstick humor. The writer makes a promise at the beginning that the story will continue in the same way for the rest of the book. Here’s the opening from Jennifer Crusie’s book, “Fast Women”:
“The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway. Meeting Gabriel McKenna just meant she’d arrived.”
With this opening Ms. Crusie promises that the tone of the book will be humorous. She delivers in the rest of the scene. Nell is newly divorced, and unemployed, having just been dumped by her husband who was also her boss. She is desperate for a job. She’s also so nervous that she manages to make a hole in the carpet, destroy a window blind, and break both a window and chair before she leaves. The book promises to be a hoot.
4. The Setup. The beginning also sets up the rest of the book and gets the plot in motion. It immediately orients us in the time and place of the story, and presents us with the problem our character is facing. The decision the character makes at the beginning of the story affects the rest of the book.
5. The Details. Nancy Kress says that to be noticed by agents and editors your work has to stand out. The beginning needs specific details. The example she uses is this: “Don’t say Mary was an animal lover. Say that every evening Mary fed her 80 pound Labrador Retriever the best part of what should have been John’s steak.” These details tell us so much more about Mary and her attitude not only to the dog, but to John. Details will also help convince an editor you know what you’re talking about.
6. The Backstory. I know it’s tempting, but don’t load your beginning with tons of backstory. You may know that when your character was twelve his father ran away, leaving the hero with abandonment issues, but please don’t give us all this detail in the beginning. Keep us guessing, keep us asking questions. Just give enough information to let us keep on reading.
Do you like to write beginnings? What is the hardest part of a beginning for you? Do you have any favorite opening lines that you’d like to share, either from your own work or from a favorite author?