Have you ever woken up late, realizing that your day has already kind of started? When that jolt of panic shoots through you, it gets you up faster than any espresso ever could. It’s not a great way to begin your morning…but it’s an awesome way to begin your novel. You may have heard the old adage about starting your story in the middle, and while that’s certainly an approach that can work, it might be more helpful to think of your first chapter as that first moment when you wake up late. Starting in the middle can lead to assumptions that your reader will simply catch up on all the details that make the world of your story work—and you know what they say about assumptions. Here are three keys to making sure your story starts with the right kind of bang; exciting enough to get your readers interested, but packed with enough information to keep them involved.
- Back that thing up.
It’s tempting to treat your first chapter like an action film. Explosions—literal and/or metaphorical—are exciting, after all. But do they really offer the foundation you need to build your story on? Don’t just dive into scenes that feature characters racing away from a crime scene in a car, or catching their significant others cheating, or in the middle of losing that big promotion, unless you’ve already built some kind of connection between your protagonist and your reader. It doesn’t have to take long. A simple scene that shows what your character is like before this crisis happens to them is often enough to give your readers a firm first impression—show them that this character is more than this one explosion. There was an entire life before this moment, and what gives this moment its power is the fact that this life is about to get totally upended. So back the action up just enough to give your readers a snapshot of that life—that way, when the explosion comes and blasts it to bits, your readers get the full emotion of that action.
- Make a splash…then make sure it makes sense.
It’s important to set the tone of your story with your first scenes. Introduce your characters, their motivations, and their obstacles; that’s where your action should come from. It should spring from internal sources, foreshadowing future plot twists or even character development. Your opening should make sense within the realm of your story, giving it a foundation that lets readers known (and anticipate) exactly what’s coming.
- Offer breadcrumbs for a taste of good storytelling.
For a beginning that’s both engaging and interesting, get back to the basics. What’s are the three most important thinks readers need to know about your world, and about your characters? Think beyond the obligatory name, job, and place (though those markers are certainly important) and get down to the heart of the matter. What’s prompting your character to go down this path? What is the trouble around the bend? You don’t have to give away your plot to signpost the journey—sprinkle some breadcrumbs, and let your characters get a taste of what’s ahead. That’s how you make them want to keep reading—not with an explosion, but with a promise of something worth it just past the next page…
And, don’t forget—sometimes the best beginnings are written after you’ve finished the story!
Catherine is an assistant at Holloway Literary.