The beginning of a book is crucial to its success. Not only does it matter to agents and publishers, but it also matters to the readers. After a few pages, most readers will have made up their minds about whether or not they like your book. And the chances are, if they aren’t impressed, they’ll put it down. You may have an incredible, complex plot with lots of awesome characters and settings, but none of that matters if you can’t hook anyone within the first few pages.
So how should a book begin? How can you balance introducing your main character with setting up the background for the story and hinting at the main plot? It seems like an impossible ask, and this is a feat that many writers struggle with. Entire books have been written about just this topic! Today, I just have a few starting tips to impart with some examples and non-examples.
The First Line
It may be the most important part of your book. No one’s going to want to read a story that begins with: “Sally opened the door.” The first line should induce excitement and interest. Think to yourself: if you told someone the first line of your book, would they be interested in your story?
I was recently really impressed by the book The Ruby’s Curse by Alex Kingston. One thing I love about the Doctor Who fandom is that a large percentage of the extended content is really quality stuff; not just in terms of the show, but in terms of actual great storytelling. It’s something that doesn’t happen in a lot of other franchises.
Here’s a super simple example of an incredible opener from that book:
That’s it. It doesn’t even have a period, it’s not even a full sentence. But wow, doesn’t that already get your imagination going? One minute until what? Your heart starts racing because you know immediately that there’s some sort of time limit.
And then there’s the very next line:
“I run along the ceiling.”
!?!??! On the ceiling?
Okay, you get my point though, right? Right from the get-go, you have questions, and that’s what keeps people reading. They want answers. They want to know more. That’s why you have to keep your reader coming up with questions, so that they’ll stay engaged throughout the entire book.
Less Is More
To avoid being mean, I’m not going to quote this next book that I’m using as a non-example. I’m currently reading it for my book reviewing job and it is, to be honest, one of the worst books I’ve ever read in my life (and for some reason it has 4 1/2 stars on Amazon, but that’s a whole other blog post). When page one started off bad, I knew instantly that it was only going to go downhill from there. When I pick up these books to review, I know right off the bat how good or bad they’re going to be, and I’m always right in my assumption. They say not to judge a book by its cover, but you sure can judge it by its first few pages!
So, how does this awful book’s beginning differ from a successful one? Well, first off, it begins with very little description and a whole lot of dialogue (a trend that continues throughout the entire book). There is no introduction to the main character, we are then introduced to several other characters in rapid succession, and the book changes location every few paragraphs and moves to a different POV with it. To make matters worse, this is book five or six in a series, and while many events and people are referenced from past books, none of them is adequately explained, even though they (I think?) pertain to the plot of the current book.
Needless to say, I was just constantly confused until about 50 pages into the book (and still frequently get confused as I’m reading through it). I think maybe the author was thinking that because this book is preceded by several others, they were excused from giving this book a successful beginning.
It doesn’t matter if your book is part of a series; it’s still a standalone book with its own plot, which means that it still needs to have a good beginning. (And I haven’t read any other books in this series, but I’m willing to bet that they all start out just as badly, anyway.)
The beginning of this book has way too many things happening at once. It’s better to take your time setting things up than rushing into the plot and characters and leaving your reader confused until halfway through the book. Yes, you want your reader to have questions, but they should be questions like:
What’s going to happen? Why is this character doing this? How are they going to get out of this situation?
Questions you don’t want are:
What’s going on? Who are these people? What are they talking about?
You see the difference? If I didn’t have to read this book to write a review, I’d have put it down after the second page. Now, this is where the difficult part comes in, because you still have to make things interesting. You want to engage the reader without overwhelming them at the beginning of their story. You have to give them a taste of the plot without completely unveiling it yet.
Yikes. This is why the beginning of your book is arguably the most important part, something that writers oftentimes spend the most time on. No matter who you are, you can’t really just spit a perfect beginning out onto the page. It’s something you have to work at and intentionally perfect.
Do What You Want
They say not to start a book with a dream. They say not to start a book in the middle of a battle. And yet, I’ve known many successful and wonderful books that start with both of those. Take the book Raising Dragons by Bryan Davis for example, the first book in one of my favourite series of all time:
“Halt, foul dragon!”
Billy stared at the tall stranger, a ghostly figure draped in dark chain mail. He looked like a knight of some kind, like a toy box action figure come to life. But what was he so mad about? Could he be yelling at me?
The knight swung a sword in his right hand. Its brilliant blade flashed in the sun, and his armor jingled all over his body, echoing his swift, skillful moves. With a wave of his shield he barked a challenge. “I fear you not, fiend, nor your hellish fire! Come to battle, and we shall see whom the Creator will protect!”
Billy opened his mouth to answer, but he couldn’t talk. His throat burned like a sizzling sidewalk, and acid bubbled up from his boiling stomach. With a convulsive shudder, he belched a plume of hot, steamy gases, blistering his tongue and scorching his lips. A second later a raging river of fire blasted through his gaping mouth and hurtled toward the knight.Raising Dragons, Bryan Davis
This dream actually works really well to begin this story for many reasons. First of all, it says dragons on the cover, and what do we get right off the bat? Dragons! Otherwise, it would be a while until the scaly creatures showed up in the book. Secondly, it seamlessly introduces the fear of the main character, Billy, at the beginning of the book; he’s growing scales in his mouth and has started being nicknamed “dragon breath” by his classmates, which is the main point of conflict in the beginning of the book. Thirdly, it’s interesting! If the story began with Billy waking up and going to school, which is what happens after the dream, it wouldn’t be attention-grabbing like this is. Many people would probably put the book down.
So what’s my point? Yeah, okay, people say having a dream at the beginning “cheats the reader” because it’s not real. But…I don’t feel cheated here? Look, there are a lot of “rules” about writing books. Most of them are founded on good principles, but when it comes down to it, do what you feel is right for your story. Yes, there are basic storytelling principles that you should follow, but as far as the details go, one specific writing rule won’t work on every story, because every story is different!
These are just my thoughts for the day, conceived by reading one really terrible beginning. Basically, I want to tell you this: don’t overlook the beginning of your book. Obviously, you want to spend time making your entire story good, but at some point, you’ll have to sit down and workshop the beginning of your book to ensure that it’s interesting but not overbearing, instantly captivating, and true to the rest of your story. You can do it! I believe in you!