Whoever you’re trying to impress (an agent, a publisher, or even a reader), the beginning of your book is your best chance to pull them into the story. There are lots of factors that lead a reader to pick up a book in the first place: cover art, a recommendation, the description on Amazon or the back of the book, etc. But to actually get someone to read the whole book, you have to woo them with your first page.
There's lots of advice out there about starting a book. Use a prologue, don't use a prologue, start with a normal day in the life of your main character, dive right into the action, etc. Even the best authors struggle with finding the right place to start their book. Each book has its own needs and goals. It's impossible for me to say where your specific 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 an emotional pull on the readers. Worldbuilding can be important and intriguing, but very few people get excited about constructed languages or the inner workings of social class relations. Those details should be used as needed to add conflict, complexity, and realism to your world, but they shouldn't be the focus on your first pages.
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.
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 a mental 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, you need to show 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 between two children as an action hero backflipping off a skyscraper.
Prepare your Readers for the Main Conflict
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 always the right choice. Most books have a bit of work to do before they get to the main plot of the story. If you start off with a death or an assassination, you risk ruining the emotional impact of these moments by giving them to readers before they understand why they matter.
Instead of diving right into the main conflict of the book, think about what the readers need to know in order to become emotionally invested in your plot. What will make them care about the character who is about to die? What impact on the world (or your main character) does the assassination have? By taking the time to show these things to the reader before the event, you will make them emotionally invested in your story. And that's what really keeps them turning pages.
Don't Start with a Normal Day
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.
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.
What you don't want to do is start with a character waking up to an alarm clock at the usual time, getting dressed for school in clothes that have no particular importance, having their usual breakfast, and then going about their day routinely.
There is a huge difference between going about rote behaviors and facing small moments of every day conflict. Did they wake up late? Do they have something important to do today? Are they in the middle of a fight with their roommate? By giving them a goal and challenges to face, you've broken free of the bad clichés and entered the world of a compelling beginning.
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.
Introduce Your Main Character
Another frequent mistake is to have a character look into the mirror in the first chapter, as a way to describe themselves to the audience. This comes across as vain or awkward and makes your main character harder for readers to like. The appearance of your main character may be important to your story. If so, check out my post on exposition to learn better ways to introduce those details to the readers.
Otherwise, rather than focusing on the character's appearance, take the time to show the readers what kind of person they are. Do they keep their room messy? Do they have close friends? Are they in a powerful position at work? What things does your main character care about? What do they struggle with? These are the details that will make your readers invested in the main character. Not their eye color.
Don't Start with a Prologue
This is another piece of common advice that has some truth to it, but isn't quite grasping the real problem. Prologues themselves are not necessarily a problem. They can serve a very useful purpose in a book. But many acquisitions editors and agents have seen a lot of poorly done prologues.
If you are submitting a sample of your manuscript, consider leaving off your prologue and starting with the first chapter. You can always send in the prologue when they request the rest of your manuscript.
If you are going to include a prologue, consider a few important questions:
Can this information go anywhere else in the book? (If so, move it)
Is this prologue telling something to my readers or showing it? (If it's telling, cut it)
Is this prologue giving away information that my main character doesn't know yet? Does this ruin a later surprise?
Does my first chapter stand on its own as interesting and full of conflict without this prologue? (If not, then you need to keep working on your first chapter. Prologues are not crutches with which to prop up bad beginnings.)
Make me Care
Boiling down all of this advice, it comes down to one thing: make your readers care. From your first line, you want to connect emotionally to your reader and present problems that make them worry, sympathize, and relate to your main character. 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.