These days, with so much competition for potential readers’ attention, story beginnings are more critical than ever. A writer needs to grab a reader’s interest—quickly. Although this is a subjective business and there’s no “right” or “wrong” approach, I’d like to flag these potential pitfalls for your consideration.
As writers, we have spent a great deal of time with our manuscript, but readers are coming to it with fresh eyes. When someone don’t know our characters, their relationships, or how they operate in the story world, it’s easy to become confused. The best beginnings are clear about where we are and what is happening, while keeping us in the scene. To avoid reader confusion, be mindful about:
- introducing too many characters in the first few paragraphs of a story or pages of a novel;
- beginning with extensive dialogue without grounding the reader in the scene; or
- pressing “pause” on the action to explain things to the reader, which interrupts the story flow.
I’m not saying it can’t be done, but beginning with a character alone can be challenging. If a story begins with a character by himself or herself, they have no one with whom to interact and might instead spend their time thinking. The reader is likely to grow impatient for something to happen. Often a story beginning will be more successful at grabbing a reader’s attention if you give the character someone to talk to. This provides an opportunity to show what the character is like and introduce tension.
In many novels considered to be classics, the opening line makes a pronouncement about the world or how life works. Dickens and Tolstoy do this often. You are certainly welcome to use this approach in contemporary fiction, but it might strike some readers (this one included) as preachy.
A publisher and editor whom I admire (hi Kevin!) calls this “throat-clearing.” The beginning of your story is valuable real estate. Don’t spend it preparing to tell the story. Start the actual story. This means, where you can, avoiding backstory, setting things in motion as soon as possible, and staying in scene.
Readers want to feel like your story is one they haven’t read before. Consider whether your opening might come across as overly familiar, such as a character waking up or looking in the mirror. Similarly, a dream sequence might not be the best approach to draw a reader in.
Of course, you can pull any number of books off your shelves that break these “rules.” As long as you’re intentional about your approach, you can craft a story beginning that works.