Unlike readers of decades or a century ago, who weren’t bombarded all day long with every kind of distracting media, all competing for their attention, today’s readers are less patient with rambling beginnings. They usually want to open a book and get sucked into the story world quickly. In the past, the more leisurely tradition was to start in omniscient point of view and describe the setting, followed by a kind of authorial overview of the situation and characters, and finally showing us the main character and his current situation. Today’s bestselling authors, for the most part, have gotten away from that type of opening. As literary agent and writing guru Donald Maass says, in rejecting submissions, “Too many manuscripts begin at a distance from their protagonists, as if opening with a long shot like in a movie. That’s a shame. Why keep readers at arm’s length?”
So nowadays, it’s more immediate and effective to start right out in your protagonist’s head and show him or her in motion, with attitude, actions, reactions and feelings. That way your reader, rather than being held at a distance while you introduce the setting or whatever, starts to become emotionally invested right away, and gets hooked in quickly, absorbed in your story, wanting to find out more. If you really want to start with the setting, make it brief, compelling and mood-setting.
Your first paragraph should be dynamic, not a meandering lead-up to something more interesting. Don’t rev your engines by starting your story with your character waking up to a normal day, or on the way to somewhere, with no tension. It’s more intriguing to readers if you open with the protagonist challenged somehow and the plot already moving forward. Also, an interaction with someone else, with some tension involved, is more compelling than internal musings, reflections, or thoughts about the weather or even upcoming events.
And it’s really best to get into the protagonist's POV right away, not some other character’s, and stay there for the first chapter, as readers start to identify with and bond with the first character they read about, and start worrying about them. If that person then gets killed off at the end of the chapter, or turns out to be a minor or even supporting character, many readers will feel cheated.
By starting in your main character’s head, you quickly answer the reader’s first question, “Whose story is this?” Don’t keep them wondering, trying to figure it out—that can be frustrating. They just want to know who to root for right off the bat, so they can relax and start enjoying the story. Similarly, start out each new chapter or scene with the name of the POV character for that scene, so we know right away who we’re concentrating on in this scene, whose head we’re in.
Also, I advise against starting with just “the detective” or “the police officer” or “the private investigator” or “the movie star” or some other anonymous, third-party, distancing description of your main character, without their name attached. That immediately creates an emotional distance from the character that can throw the reader off. Sure, use their title or other descriptor, but start right out in your protagonist’s head, and use his/her name. As Jack M. Bickham says, “Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character right away—and stay there [for most of the story].”
Here are some examples of first lines / paragraphs of bestselling novels that start right out in the point of view of the protagonist of the novel.
Lee Child, The Hard Way: “Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever.”
Louise Penny, Bury Your Dead: “Up the stairs they raced, taking them two at a time, trying to be as quiet as possible. Gamache struggled to keep his breathing steady, …”
David Baldacci, Hell’s Corner: “Oliver Stone was counting seconds, an exercise that had always calmed him. And he needed to be calm.”
Lisa Gardner, Love You More: “Sergeant Detective D.D. Warren prided herself on her excellent investigative skills.”
Andrew Gross, The Dark Tide: “As the morning sun canted sharply through the bedroom window, Charles Friedman dropped the baton. He hadn’t had the dream in years, yet there he was, gangly, twelve years old, running…”
Katherine Neville, The Fire: “Solarin gripped his little daughter’s mittened hand firmly in his own. He could hear the snow crunch beneath his boots and see their breath rise in silvery puffs, as together they crossed…”
Steve Berry, The Paris Vendetta: “The bullet tore into Cotton Malone’s left shoulder. He fought to ignore the pain and focused on the plaza. People rushed in all directions. Horns blared. Tires squealed.”
Karin Slaughter, Fallen: “Faith Mitchell dumped the contents of her purse onto the passenger seat of her Mini, trying to find something to eat. [..] The computer seminar she’d attended this morning was supposed to last only three hours, but…”
Lee Child, Tripwire: “Jack Reacher saw the guy step in through the door.”
Of course, we can all think of excellent novels that take several paragraphs or even pages to establish the POV character, but in general, delaying this vital info is on the decline. And aspiring authors who intend to go the agent and publisher route especially need to consider the short attention span of busy, time-pressured literary agents, most of whom won’t read past the first page if it confuses or bores them, many rejecting a manuscript after only a few paragraphs.
What do you think? What are some story openings that have hooked you in right away?
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction
For related articles, see my blog posts “Set up Your Story in the First Paragraphs, “Those Critical First Five Pages,” and "Act First, Explain Later." Also, “POV 101 – Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of your story)," and "Psychic Distance.”
Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013).
Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.