Of all the parts of a novel, the beginning is arguably the most important thing to get right.
Sure, vibrant characters, a driving plot line, and tight writing are important, but if the reader never makes it past the first page, what does that matter?
Gone are the days of long, meandering backstory á la Jane Eyre. Today’s readers want to be immersed right from the get go, or they bore easily.
Every book needs to start strong. Here are some of the elements that make a reader keep reading.
Every story needs a problem—this tension is both the driving force that keeps the reader going, and the catalyst that reveals the character’s true nature. If there is no conflict at the beginning, then the book might as well be a grocery list.
Books these days start with a plunge. Dive headfirst into action that shows us how the character thinks and feels. Starting with action gives the story momentum that can carry it through quieter moments later on. Beginning with lengthy exposition puts the reader on an uphill climb that he or she will not likely finish.
Show us why we should like the main character, right from the beginning. Give the reader a quick, bold sketch of the most important details of the character—who she is, what she wants, and especially what makes her different from other characters.
Leave some details to the reader’s imagination. Let us have some unanswered questions for a while. These little mysteries about characters, settings, and conflicts can drive the story forward just as much as the main conflict can. Many authors overlook this and make the mistake of revealing too much at the beginning, where they could have used an opportunity to string the reader along with questions.
The beginning of a story is often called the hook. The point is to catch the reader’s attention, and the best way to do this is to put a new twist on a familiar concept. Do something unique. Put your own spin on your opening scenario. Jarring the reader will make him sit up and pay attention and, most importantly, keep reading.
Erin E.M. Hatton is the author of Otherworld and Across the Deep, winner of the 2014 Free Publishing Contest for Fiction. She has also authored several short stories and novellas. She graduated from Redeemer University College and lives in Barrie, Ontario with her husband Kevin and four children.
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