Whoever you’re trying to impress (an agent, a publisher, or even a reader), the beginning of your book is your one and only chance. There's lots of advice out there about starting a book. Use a prologue, don't use a prologue, start with a normal day, dive right into the action, make sure things are happening, make sure I love the main character. Even the best authors struggle with finding the right place to start their book.
It's impossible for me to say where your story needs to start without actually reading it, but if you're struggling to find the right beginning, here are some tips that may help.
Keep the Exposition to a Minimum
One of the most common mistakes I see in early chapters is the attempt to explain the entire backstory and the entire world to the readers right off the bat. This is a big mistake. Stories are about emotion, and a world history is not going to have the same pull as a person. Very few people get excited about constructed languages or the inner workings of social class relations. Those details can add conflict and complexity and realism to your world, but they won’t create emotion by themselves.
So how to you tell a story in a complicated and foreign world without stopping to explain things to your readers?
Readers are pretty smart. They don’t need to be handfed. They pick up a lot from context. And when they can’t, a single sentence can be enough to fill in the blanks for them.
A lot of writers feel that exposition has to come through moments of their point of view character staring into space, remembering their first spell or their first fight with their archnemesis.
Tasha glared at the arrogant sun wizard, wrapped in his bright yellow robes. “Keep your theories to yourself, darkspot,” she hissed.
The wizard gasped in shock. No one had used the insult darkspot in a hundred years, not since the treaty between the light clans. It was the worst insult you could make to a sun wizard, worse than “blackness” or “fool” or even getting mud on those ridiculous robes they wore. It wasn’t technically against the treaty to say it. No one had sat there writing out all the rules of politeness. But everyone understood you were supposed to be diplomatic.
That’s completely unnecessary. If you use a word I don’t know, define it for me. If you mention a person, paint a picture. If you can keep it all to a sentence or two, and if it is information your point of view character knows, then readers won’t even notice it’s there.
Tasha glared at the arrogant wizard. “Keep your theories to yourself, darkspot.”
The wizard looked appropriately offended. Darkspot was the worst insult you could make to a sun wizard. She probably was a little bit carried away, but there would be time for diplomacy later.
Readers wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell that “darkspot” was meant to be offensive, but a combination of the reactions of the characters and the quick explanation thrown in lets them know enough.
This works with character backstories too. I don’t need to know the geographical location of the main character’s hometown to understand what kind of person they are. If the home town matters, then a quick explanation will do. For example, if your main character is from a teeny tiny middle of nowhere town, they might be confused about public transportation or easily get lost on big city streets. They might use slang terms that no one else understands or be homesick for relatives they never get to see. These are the sort of details that will become relevant during the story. If they become relevant in your first chapter, then try to use showing rather than telling to give them the bare minimum of what they need to know to understand the scene.
As a good editor friend of mine says, treat your readers like they are in the CIA. Need to know only.
For more information about how to give readers information without pausing your story, read my posts about Point of View and Descriptions.
Avoid the Movie Openings
Books and movies are two different ways to tell a story. What works for a movie will not necessarily translate into good storytelling in a book. Make sure to remember which medium you are using to tell your story and suit your beginning to that.
In a movie, they often start with a dramatic explosion, or a swoop through a quaint village that slowly narrows in on a single house while the music plays. This works in movies where the consumer just needs to watch and see what happens. But in books, you need the reader involved. They need to create the picture from your words. Which means you need to get them motivated and invested, not ease them into it.
In order to tug on their heartstrings, instead of impressing them with epic backflips, you need to get them motivated by showing them what is at stake. The easiest way to do this is to get inside the character’s head and show readers the cause and effect of each action.
A lot of wonderful books make terrible movies, because in movies you can’t be inside the characters’ heads. Ender’s Game comes to mind as an example of a very thoughtful book that didn’t translate well into a movie. On the inside, Ender is a very confused kid navigating a difficult situation. One the outside, everyone sees him as capable and unflappable. It makes him a lot less compelling of a character viewed only from the outside. This same problem happened with the second Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. In the first five books, Percy tells the story in first person. He’s adorable and relatable. In the second series, there are several point of view characters who describe Percy Jackson from the outside. Without his running inner monologue, he appears to unconcernedly dive into problems with no plan and somehow miraculously survive.
Give your readers reasons and insecurities. Give them thought processes and inner monologues. Tell them the why’s and how’s of what’s happening, and they can be just as interested in an argument with a grown man living in his mother’s basement as an action hero backflipping off a skyscraper.
A lot of writers think starting with conflict means starting with the “inciting incident.” (If you aren’t familiar with that term, it basically means the event that overturns the main character’s day to day life and sends them spiraling towards the climax.) The inciting incident can make a good first chapter, but it’s not necessary. Conflict can be anything. Trying to get out of bed in the morning is a struggle I can deeply relate to. So are running late for work, hitting a traffic jam, or trying to find the perfect birthday present.
You might notice something in common with all these examples. In each of these scenarios, the character has a goal. Get out of bed. Get to work. Find a present.
As long as your character is trying to achieve something, readers are going to want to know if they succeed. The types of goals that interest readers will be different based on your genre and setting, but if you can give your main character a goal to accomplish and an obstacle in their way, you’ve just created conflict. And you didn’t have to pull out a plot twist or ten pages of backstory to set it up.
I hear the advice to not start with a typical “day in the life” of your character all the time. There is some truth in this advice, but it’s not the normalcy that makes these openings boring. It’s the lack of a goal. A “day in the life” scene could be the most boring, most skippable part of a book. Or it could be exciting and teach readers to love your main character before the crazy stuff starts happening. It's all about the conflict.
Make me care
Boiling down this advice, it comes down to making the reader love your main character . That is the purpose of chapter one. The main character is the reason the reader is going to keep going, to see if that character succeeds or fails at each new challenge you put in front of them. So, as long as the readers (or editors or agents) get on board with that main character, they are going to keep reading through any other mistakes you make and give your book the shot it deserves.
About my coauthor:
Ahna Larson is an awesome editor who was a huge help working on this blog post.