Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Act First, Explain Later

Twelve dos and don'ts for a riveting opening to your story

by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

The opening paragraphs and first page of your novel or short story are absolutely critical. How you craft your opening will make the difference between a potential reader starting your book, then putting it down (or rejecting it online) and seeking another one, or, their interest and curiosity piqued, eagerly turning the page to read on.

Gone are the days when readers of fiction were willing to read pages or even paragraphs of description and lead-up before diving into the actual story. Readers, agents, and publishers today don’t have the time, patience, or desire to wade through pages of warm-up, scene-setting, backstory, or description, so you need to dispense with revving your engine and hook them in right from the first sentence and first paragraph of your story.

As James Scott Bell says so wisely in his writing guide, 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 twelve dos and don’ts for making the first page of your novel zing and entice readers to turn to the second page. Note that these are recommendations to hook readers in, not hard-and-fast rules. 

1. DON’T begin with a long description of the setting or with detailed background information on your characters. 

 - DO begin with meaningful, interesting dialogue and interaction, with some tension, then add in any necessary backstory information or description in small doses, on a need-to-know basis as you progress through the story.

2. DON’T start with a character other than your protagonist.    

 - DO introduce your novel's main character right in the first paragraph.

3. DON’T start with a description of past events.
 - DO jump right in with what the lead character is involved in right now, with some tension, an aspiration/goal, or some conflict.

4. DON’T start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s

 - DO start telling the story from your protagonist’s point of view. It’s best to stay in the viewpoint of the hero/heroine for the whole first chapter, preferably the first few chapters to establish them as the lead character. And don’t change the point of view within a scene.

5. DON’T present 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.  Google "inciting incident."

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. That’s much more compelling than reading the thoughts or musings of one person.

7. DON’T start with your protagonist planning a trip, or travelling somewhere; in other words, as a lead-up to an important scene. 

 - DO start in media res – jump right into the middle of the action. Present her in a meaningful scene.

8. DON’T introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages.
 - DO limit the number of characters you introduce in the first few pages to three or less. 

9. DON’T spend too long leading up to the main conflict or problem the protagonist faces.
 - DO introduce the main dilemma (or at least some significant tension) within the first chapters. 

10. DON’T leave the reader wondering what the characters look like

 - DO provide a brief description of each character as they’re introduced, so the readers can form a picture of him or her in their minds. But don't get carried away with too many details, and be sure to make it from the POV character's viewpoint and impressions, not a neutral description by the author/narrator.

11. DON’T have the main character looking in the mirror as a device for describing him/her. This has been overdone. 

 - DO work in the description in a more natural way, by relating it to his or her actions or interactions with others.

12. DON’T wait too long to introduce the hero in a romance or romantic suspense.
 - DO introduce the love interest by the end of chapter one, to spark reader interest.

Remember, you can always start your story wherever you want in the draft stage, if it’ll make you feel better. Then in the editing stage, you can go back and cut out or condense the first several paragraphs or pages or even most of the first chapter, 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 some great advice for writing compelling fiction, coined by author Dan Brown and made popular by James Scott Bell: 
Act first, explain later.

Click HERE for options to receive email alerts of new posts published on this blog.

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 FictionWRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICKCLICKS: 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 WorkersYou can find Jodie on her Amazon Author Page, at www.JodieRenner.com, and on Facebook. 


  1. These are all the rules I learned when I began writing novels, and I've tried to follow them faithfully. However, I am now also a reviewer for New York Journal of Books, so I read A LOT of NEW books, and I must tell you these rules are broken constantly in books published not only by small or Indie pubs, but in books published by the Big Five. In fact, mostly by the Big Five. Are purists like me and you behind the times? LOL

  2. C.C., I'm an avid reader of bestselling fiction, and these very brief guidelines are also a result of my personal reading and what grabs me and what makes me roll my eyes. Personally, I think the Big Five publishers don't invest as much as they used to in quality editors who will really think about techniques that excite readers or turn them off. Also, authors are pressured to churn out books much faster and I'm sure editors are discouraged from bringing points to the author's attention, as revisions slow down production. That's my take on it, anyway. Also, why not encourage new writers to think more about reader reactions? Congrats on being a reviewer for New York Journal of Books! Kudos to you!

    1. Hello Jodie, I love your advice. My character is lying on the tideline unable to get up and about to drown. This breaks many of the rules, such as she's alone and thinking about her situation..etc....I've been told by beta readers they're intrigued to find out how she got herself into this mess. What do you think?

    2. Hi Goldie. Your opening sounds really intriguing! Go for it! My tips are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules, and it's smart that you're using beta readers to test the waters. Good luck with this novel. Can't wait to read it!