In Twilight, the carry on was a parka. In Harry Potter, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley were perfectly normal. And in Hunger Games, the other side of the bed was cold.
These are the openers for three books that have taken both the publishing world and Hollywood by storm. While the stories have grabbed the minds and hearts of readers, one wonders just how important the opening of the story is. I mean, we want deep characters whom we can care about, nail-biting action, and an ending that either suprises us or delivers a great victory. Does it matter if the first two or three pages limp along a little, if the rest of the story is a home run hit?
Oh yeah. It totally does.
This is because the opening is what helps you sell your idea and your writing. There’s no perfect formula for opening a story. That’s because writing isn’t formulaic (and writing that is doesn’t usually go anywhere). But after reading hundreds of bestsellers over the past few years and finally breaking into the publishing world myself, I have learned some important lessons about opening the story. Call it a short dos and don’ts list. Oh, and remember, all these rules have and will be broken. That’s the mind-boggling part of this game.
– Let the reader hear your writing voice and get the feel for the intended mood of your novel. Is the story supposed to be funny or witty? Get those one-liners rolling. Action packed? Start with conflict. Mysterious or dark? Create the atmosphere right away.
– Introduce your character and what he/she is like. A reader needs to know who the protaganist is and why we should care about him or her (or, like in Lu’s Legend, both). This doesn’t mean you start with a list of attributes. Through action or dialogue and the characters reactive thoughts, you can show who this person is meant to be.
– Pace yourself. This is tough advice to follow, especially because agents and editors don’t give a potential book much of a look past the first few pages. But trying to get to the crux of your story too quickly doesn’t give you time to build the anticipation for the inciting incident.
– Start out with the same old, same old story line. In teen comtemporary or paranormal fiction, you see new school situations all the time. In dystopian novels, it’s the day you get your job, mate, etc. If you read a lot (and if you’re an aspiring writer, there’s no excuse not to), than you are at an advantage. If you’ve heard it before, chances are, an agent or editor has too–a hundred million times.
– Give all the details. You’re writing a novel, not a news article. No inverted pyramid necessary. My mom is really good at this. She tells me stories about the most mundane things, but she always builds the anticipation by keeping the important information back and creating a sense of mystery. It may be groan-inducing when it’s a story about a trip to the grocery store, but this is pretty critical when beginning your novel.
– Get married to your opening so you can’t change it. I know the feeling of crafting the perfect paragraph, page, or first chapter and feeling you can’t possibly get rid of it after all that hard work. On the other hand, if, after writing most or all of the rest of your novel, you can think of a better way to start it, be ready to hit that delete button. It’s not about saving every single line you crafted–it’s about telling the best possible version of your story. And sometimes, that’s why feedback is worth it’s weight in publishing gold.