Friday, October 11, 2019

12 Dos and Don'ts for a Riveting Opening

updated from original post, by Jodie Renner, fiction editor and author of writing guides

Do you want your popular fiction novel to reach lots of readers and garner great reviews? Of course you do! Competition is fierce, so your first pages have to grab the readers and compel them to keep turning the pages till the end.

Whether in a bookstore or shopping online, potential readers start by checking out the back cover blurb, then read the first page or two. Based on that, they'll either buy that novel or move on to another.

Your first pages are critical!

Gone are the days when fiction readers were willing to read pages of description and lead-up before being introduced to the characters and the plot. Readers, agents, and publishers today don’t have the time or patience to wade through pages of backstory and description, so you need to grab their interest right from the first sentence and first paragraph of your story.

As James Scott Bell says in Revision and Self-Editing, about the opening paragraphs,
“Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.”

HERE ARE 12 DOS AND DON'TS FOR HOOKING READERS IN RIGHT FROM THE START. These are not hard-and-fast rules, of course, but techniques for engaging your readers emotionally, which is what will keep them turning the pages.

1. Don’t begin with a long, neutral description of the setting or with background information on your main character.

Do begin with dialogue and action, then add any necessary backstory or description in bits and pieces where it fits well as you progress through the story. This also builds up reader curiosity and adds intrigue.

2. Don’t start with a character other than your protagonist. 

Do introduce your protagonist right in the first paragraph – preferably the first sentence. Readers want to know right away whose story it is, which character you’re asking them to identify with. (See below for some first lines of bestselling novels.)

3. Don’t start with a description of past events. 

Do jump right in with what the main character is involved in right now and introduce some tension or conflict as soon as possible.

4. Don’t start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s.

Rather than starting in omniscient point of view, as the author talking to the readers, or in the viewpoint of a minor character observing, do start telling the story from your protagonist’s point of view, so readers start bonding with him or her right away. It’s best to stay in the protagonist’s viewpoint for at least the whole first chapter, or most of it, and don’t change the point of view within a scene.

5. Don’t introduce your protagonist in a static, neutral (boring) situation. 

Do develop your main character quickly by putting her in a bit of hot water and showing how she reacts to the situation, so readers can empathize and “bond” with her and start caring enough about her to keep reading. 

6. Don’t start with your character all alone, reflecting on his life. 

Do have more than one character (two is best) interacting, with action and dialogue and some tension. That’s more compelling than reading the thoughts of one person.

7. Don’t start with your protagonist getting out of bed, planning a trip, or traveling somewhere.

In other words, don’t start with him on his way to an important scene. Instead, present him in a meaningful scene right away.

8. Don’t introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages. 

To avoid reader confusion and frustration, it’s best to limit the number of characters you introduce in the first few pages to three or less. 

9. Don't confuse the readers. Don't leave them wondering who this is, where they are, and what's going on.

Readers want to get a handle very early on as to the 5 W's: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. Who is this character, exactly? Give the gender, approximate age, occupation, and standing in life of your protagonist. Also, what's going on and where are they? Is it the present or past? Once readers have a basic idea of your main character and story world, they can sit back and relax and get into the story.

10. Don’t leave the reader wondering what the characters look like or their approximate ages. 

Do provide a brief description of each main or supporting character as they’re introduced, or as soon as you can work it in, so the readers can form a picture of him or her in their minds. But don’t spend too much time detailing every single thing they’re wearing – just a rough sketch is best, with first-impression character traits, and from your viewpoint character’s point of view, but subtly and with attitude.

11. Don’t wait too long to introduce the love interest or villain.

To add interest and intrigue, in a romance, do introduce the hero (love interest) and, in a thriller, show us the antagonist (bad guy) within the first chapter or two. 

12. Don’t spend too long on setup.

Don’t take chapters to introduce the main conflict or problem the protagonist faces. Do write in an inciting incident, or at least some significant tension, within the first pages. 

But don’t fuss over your opening in the writing stage. Just start your story wherever you want. Then in the editing stage, you can go back and cut out the first several paragraphs or pages or even most of the first chapter or two, so that, in your final draft, your actual story starts after all that lead-up (some of which may appear later, in snippets here and there). 

In conclusion, here’s a little rule for writing compelling fiction, coined by one of my favorite writing gurus, James Scott Bell: 

Act first, explain later.

The above tips are excerpted from Jodie Renner's writing guide, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, available on all Amazon sites and elsewhere. 

Here are some effective opening lines from bestselling novels. Notice that the protagonist is mentioned by name right at the beginning, and the scene is in his/her point of view. Also, some tension and intrigue is introduced right away to compel us to keep reading.

"Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, no foam, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever."
– Lee Child, first line of The Hard Way

"The voice on the phone was a whisper. It had a forceful, almost desperate quality to it.
Henry Pierce told the caller he had a wrong number, but the voice became insistent."
- Michael Connelly, opening lines of Chasing the Dime

"The man with the rubber boots stepped into the elevator behind me, but I didn't see him at first. I smelled him though--the pungent odor of smoke and cheap wine and life on the street without soap."
- John Grisham, opening lines of The Street Lawyer


"I’d never given much thought to how I would die – even though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this."
– Stephenie Meyer, first line of Twilight
"The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming."
– Elmore Leonard, first line of Glitz

"Cooper Sullivan’s life, as he’d known it, was over."
– Nora Roberts, first line of Black Hills

"Dallas ran, far from the house. He could hear his aunt Betsy calling to him, but he needed to escape."
- Heather Graham, opening of the Prologue of The Summoning

Do you have any gripping opening lines you'd like to share? Please use the comments below. Thanks.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION,  CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. Website: www.JodieRenner.com; Facebook. Amazon Author Page.

7 comments:

  1. This was a great post. I found myself going through it like a check list. Did I do this? Check. Did I do that? No, better go back and take a look. Thank you, Jodie.

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  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Liza! I'm glad you found my tips helpful!

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  3. I like the idea of putting my protagonist in a bit of hot water at the very beginning. Great advice!

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    1. Thanks for dropping by, Tina! Good to hear we agree on that tip!

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  4. Thank you for this great article! Setting up the story with intrigue and empathy is so important, something a lot of writers forget when they get swept up in the excitement of putting pen to paper. Here is an article I wrote called "Introducing a Character, Not a Bore" that I thought you might enjoy: http://catehogan.com/introducing_your_character/

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  5. Excellent advice as usual, Jodie. I'd say Writer Sins 6 and 7 above slow down most of the stories I critique. As you say, act first, then explain.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to post a comment, Mike. Yes, in my editing of novels, I always suggest a change when I see a static or warm-up opening. Show the protagonist in action, preferably with some tension, right from the beginning!

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