May 01 2008
This article will help you write an opening for your book that develops the characters, plot and world.
1) Introduce the characters before throwing the readers into any high-intensity action. As much as you might want to lead with a car-chase or other action sequence, like many movies do, it’s hard to excite readers with an action sequence if they don’t know why they should sympathize with the protagonist.
2) It’s usually best to start the story by showing the main character in his element. For example, The Hobbit begins with Bilbo Baggins enjoying himself at a birthday party. If the story started with him dungeon-crawling with the dwarves, we’d probably be confused about whether he’s an adventurer at heart and what he’s like.
3) Establishing a fresh character voice early is critical. Your readers have already seen 10 books about a young hero called upon to save the world, but they will stick around for an eleventh if the character sounds interesting.
1) Ease readers into unusual aspects of your story. An excellent cinematic example of this is the effective introduction of the original Star Wars movie (“a long time ago…”). The introduction tells us that there’s a civil war between good rebels and an evil empire and that the rebels must protect the plans to a powerful spaceship. The introduction does not ramble about any concepts completely alien to us (Jedi, Darth Vader, The Force, Hutts, etc.)
2) Dramatic stories are usually driven by problems. Showing us a big problem early on will help us grasp where the story is going and feel like we get what’s going on. Alternatively, a small problem can help drive the story until you reach larger problems. For example, Harry Potter’s main goal is to survive his awful family at the beginning of the Harry Potter series. It’s only 50 pages in that we learn anything about Voldemort or Hogwarts.
3) Good writing makes readers ask questions. Who’s this character? What happens at Fahrenheit 451? The trick is striking a balance between clarity and suspense (giving readers enough information to understand the plot vs. leaving some open threads to propel readers along).
Not clear enough: “Even before I had joined the Guardians, two Lakriamians had successfully managed to reach Si’cxza status.” We don’t understand what any of these buzz-words mean.
Not suspenseful enough: “The Guardians are a guild of assassins that have never failed a mission.”
Better: “Leia had heard the legend of the drunken squeegeemaster in hundreds of taverns, but never from a talking plant.” This gets readers asking questions. Who’s Leia and what is she doing in hundreds of taverns? Who’s the drunken squeegeemaster? Why is a plant talking, and why is he telling stories in a tavern?
1) Don’t spend too long setting the stage. Show us only details that are relevant to the plot or character development.
2) Invented words (like Jedi, The Force, The Matrix, etc.) may be part of your story’s world, but they aren’t familiar to us and tend to lose readers. Don’t use them often in the introduction, and never in the first sentence. For example, let’s say your opening sentence is “Leia had heard the legend of the drunken squeegeemaster in hundreds of taverns, but never from a talking plant.” If you were to insert fictional words for the name of the squeegeemaster and the race of talking plants, that sentence would lose all of its charm. “Leia had heard the legend of Pammalo in hundreds of taverns, but never before from a Flornilus.” Ick.
Try to describe the roles (drunken squeegeemaster, talking plant) before you start throwing fictional names around. In the vast majority of cases, the roles will engage prospective readers more than your invented names will.