Perfect Your Novel's Opening Pages: How to Start a Story Off Right

querying revising
Perfect your novel's opening pages: how to start a story off right

Are you struggling with the opening pages of your novel? Don't worry, you're not alone. Many writers find it challenging to craft strong first lines that hook the reader and set the tone for the rest of the story. That’s why in this post, we'll be discussing why the first 10-20 pages of your manuscript are so crucial and how you can write a compelling opening that will make the reader want to read your entire story!

Why is it important how you start a story?

The style, mood, and tone of your story are set by its opening pages. They should set up your hero—including their goals and problems—and their world, while creating a sense of intrigue from page one. If you can hook readers with your opening pages, they'll likely continue on with the rest of the story. But failing to captivate them early on could result in your book landing in their DNF (did not finish) pile.

If you decide to pursue traditional publishing, your opening chapter is important because this is what agents will see first. For both traditionally published and self-published authors, the beginning of your story is what potential readers will read in the store, or when reading a free preview while shopping for e-books.

Tips for writing the beginning of a novel

Hook readers with a great opening line

If you want to hook readers right from the start, a compelling opening line is crucial. There are various ways to achieve this. One way is to spark their interest by posing a question. For instance, N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season begins with, "Let's start with the end of the world, why don't we?" Already, this gets readers wondering, what happened? What caused the end of the world? What happens next?

Humor is another effective tool you can use to start your story, such as Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, which starts with, "The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say. About anything."

Another approach is to use dialogue, as seen in Ali Stoker and Stacy Davidowitz's The Chance to Fly. This contemporary middle-grade story opens with the protagonist, Nat, playing a game her family uses during road trips:

“I FOUND OKLAHOMA!” Nat screamed from the back seat of her family's Nissan Altima, jolting her dad awake from the passenger seat. She snapped a photo of the license plate.

“That's a point, Natty baby,” her mom said, drumming on the steering wheel.

This line of dialogue instantly pulls the reader into the scene. When crafting your own first chapter, get right to the point. Don't waste time trying to give the reader every piece of exposition at the start of your story;  there will be time for that as the story unfolds. 

Make your first page visual

Create an engaging opening scene by showing your character moving through the story rather than just letting things happen to them. Use sensory details to describe the setting and create a vivid picture in the reader's mind that will immerse them in the story's world, and orient them to where and when the story takes place.

In Andrew Joseph White's Hell Followed With Us, the story opens up with 16-year-old Benji running away after witnessing his father's murder. White paints a visual picture of what Benji is experiencing:

"I'm running. Dad's blood is in my mouth. Brother Hutch shot him once in the chest to stop him and once in the head to kill him. Brother Hutch calls for me, 'We can do this the easy way, we really can!" The other Angels sweep the riverfront, shining white in the blazing February sun, moving slow and sure through the streets. They don't have to be quick. They know they'll catch me eventually…

… I crash to a stop behind a stone pillar by the riverbank and double over to gasp for air. My hair sticks to my forehead in a slurry of sweat and blood - Dad's blood - drying on my face and hands."

A few paragraphs later, the author writes:

"I peek from behind the pillar to look down the street. The riverfront district was probably beautiful before Judgment Day. Before the Flood hit. Now, ivy climbs up glass skyscrapers and cars rust in parking-lot graveyards. Lawns and gardens have gone wild, smothering everything they can reach. Flowers bloom in February. It's one of the few good months for flowers. They'll die of thirst by April."

The italicized words are action words that drive the story forward, and the words in bold are descriptions we see the author use to paint a picture of the scene. Where Benji is, what his surroundings look like, and the repeated description of his dad's blood on his face, hands, hair, his mouth tells the reader what's at stake here for this character. Not only does this pique our curiosity and make us wonder what happened before this, why was Benji's father murdered, and who Benji is running from, but it also creates sympathy from the reader for Benji, compelling them to continue with the story to find out what will happen to him.

Show us your hero's flaws in the first chapter

You can also make your writing more engaging by introducing your hero's flaws in the opening. Flaws are crucial for character growth and to keep readers interested. Without them, there's no growth or transformation, and readers will get bored. Therefore, it's important to show their starting point before the change occurs. Reveal their insecurities, traumas, and past baggage that make their life challenging, and demonstrate their flaw through a scene. This is why it can be a good idea to start the story in the middle of the action. Doing so shows the reader who the hero is through action and dialogue rather than telling the reader.

Ready to write your first lines?

If you want to achieve a captivating opening, it's essential to create a powerful hook that draws readers in and makes them want to keep reading. This can be done in many ways, including visually, with vivid imagery, and by showing the character move through the story proactively. It's also important to establish the hero's flaws early on and remember to tie everything together in your set-up and the theme. With these tips, you can wow your readers with your opening pages and keep them engaged and invested in your story right from the beginning.

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