The opening of a novel is extremely important, as it will establish a lot of elements that will come to play throughout the story. From the setting to the narrative pace to the tone to the characters, your opening often has a big impact in how those various elements are shaped.
Strong Openings Don’t Make A Story
A strong opening, of course, doesn’t necessarily make for a good novel or short story. However, it lays down the proper foundation for the reader to both understand the narrative and commit to it. Without a strong opening, you’re likely to lose a lot of potential readers before the first chapter is through.
Story openers should exhibit as much of the individual craft elements that make up the story as a whole. That is, it works best when the opener establishes a distinctive voice, a specific point of view, a rudimentary hint of the plot and a small dash of character introduction. Before the first paragraph is done, readers should be aware of the setting and initial conflict in order to properly establish a context for the narrative.
Don’t Start In The Wrong Place
There are many places in which you can start a story. It’s important to avoid beginning it in spots where you’ll need to do fill in lots of blanks in the background, though. If you immediately need to do flashbacks, narratives of past events and similar strategies for establishing context as soon as you begin the story, then you probably jumped too late into the plot. In such cases, it’s better to just go back to an earlier time and start the story there.
Do note that this is different from holding back some information from the readers. Having small bits of details that you can fill in throughout the story are fine, provided you can skip them after the opening of your story.
It’s also possible to start a story too early. If you’re writing a retelling of Snow White, for instance, it’s probably a bad idea to open with the damsel in distress waking up one morning and making breakfast. A good rule is to skip right up to the point where action is imminent, so you don’t drag the reader into a boring account from the get-go. When nothing happens, many readers usually move on.
Most stories are triggered by a thing, an event or a situation that makes the author wonder how someone will deal with it. The story, of course, narrates the process in which the characters do just that. This style is, basically, the default path almost every other mystery novel takes — a murder happens in the first scene, creating immediate questions about who’s responsible for the act. And you, the reader, jump in for the ride.
The same trigger can be used to entice readers to dive into the story. Simply put, a good opener raises questions — ones that readers will want to answer. Use that same element to introduce the narrative and pique the reader’s curiosity.
Viewpoint In Life
Plenty of stories do well opening with the protagonist’s philosophy of life, expressing the main character’s views right from the onset. This works well for establishing an immediate context for the story — the reader knows the statement will either be validated or not throughout the length of the narrative. It also sticks your story to an instant structure, giving you a framework from which to tell the tale. This type of opener often works best when the protagonist has particularly sensational or off-the-wall viewpoints, as they create instant hooks that can leave readers wanting more.
The Thick Of The Action
One of the most popular openings for new novels is to start the story right in the middle of an action scene. You’ll see this type of approach in many modern novels, as well as in most mainstream movies. This technique allows you to start the story in a vibrant and exciting fashion, all while allowing you to introduce characters and context in a natural manner.
When you use this type of opening, always assume that the readers will care about your characters. You’re in action-mode, so breaking up the pace to describe characters isn’t the best way to go about things. Instead, reveal aspects of them from how they act and react to what’s going on.
The Main Character
You can always start a story by introducing the main character. In doing so, you immediately signal that you’re going to give the reader a character-centered story — one where this individual will be the center of events and the bearer of conflicts. The more action-oriented you can make the introduction, the better. As such, it’s usually best to have the main character engaged in something, instead of simply being in repose, undergoing tons of descriptions.
Never Get Ahead Of The Reader
There are many times during the course of a novel where you can get away with confusing the reader, then introducing new information later to clear things up. Sometimes, it even makes for great effect. For openers, though, this is more likely to kill enthusiasm for your story than build it. Confusing the reader with the first sentence they encounter is just a shortcut to pissing them off. Avoid it like the plague.
Keep Dialogue To A Minimum
While I’ve seen many novels open with dialogue effectively, it’s a very tricky strategy that’s more likely to fail than succeed. It’s simply very easy to lose readers in the thick of conversation, especially when there’s not enough action going on in the same scene.
If you must use dialogue, start with a single line, but don’t follow up with a response. Instead, draw back and offer additional context before proceeding to the rest of the conversation.
Never settle for the first opener you come up with. Instead, always write out multiple options that you can choose from. Set them aside to let them sink in, then review them after a day or two. The opener is critical enough to deserve extra thought and attention — make sure you give it as much.