A writer asked me, "I always know exactly how I want the story to play out, but I never know how to begin. I always get stuck with how to introduce the topic to the reader. Do you have any tips for me?"
Great question, because if the opening of your novel stinks, it's doubtful that many will make it to the wonderful middle and end that you've written. But what makes for an effective opening to a story?
Here are some guidelines:
Begin with your main character and tell the scene from their point of view.
I'm sure we all have books we love that don't do this, but especially if this is early in your writing journey, I encourage you to start with your main character. Readers want to bond with your main character right away.
Start with your main character being active
They don't have to be saving the world or anything, but starting with them in motion can make a big difference. Here's how these great books did it:
Hunger Games starts with Katniss sneaking out to hunt.
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen starts with Macy at her boyfriend's house, helping him pack up for Brain Camp.
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld begins with Tally sneaking out to New Pretty Town.
Start with them in their homeworld ... with a twist
You'll notice in those examples that these main characters are all doing something familiar to them. Katniss regularly goes hunting. Macy is assisting her longtime boyfriend. Tally has been sneaking out at night, we're told, since she was 12.
But also there's something unique about this time. Either they know something is about to happen - Katniss knows the reaping is that night and Macy's boyfriend is about to leave for the summer - or something has just happened. Tally's best friend has just been made "pretty" so he's been taken to live in New Pretty Town, and for the first time she's alone.
Pick a moment that exposes their longings...
Your novel is about your character's growth. If they didn't need to change, we wouldn't care about their journey. In Tangled, before we can appreciate Rapunzel's freedom, we need to see her in captivity, longing to be free. In Cinderella, before we can appreciate her riches, we need to see her in rags, dreaming of a better life.
So when you're figuring out the best starting place, you'll want to consider what kind of goals your characters have and how you can give your readers some context for them.
...and shows their strength
You also need to give us a reason to want to spend the next 80,000 words with this character. I love the start of Cinderella because of how beautifully it showcases Cinderella's strengths - despite being oppressed and living in a home full of cruel, selfish women, Cinderella still has joy. She wakes up singing in the mornings! Her joy makes us feel the stepmother's cruelty all the more acutely, I think.
Figure out what disturbs your character's world, then back the story up slightly
Writers tend to fall into two categories with beginnings - either they take their sweet time getting to the real action of the story, or they plop us down right after the main character's world has been rocked and they don't give the reader enough context.
If you're the first type or writer, it's possible you'll write your book, then cut the first two chapters. If you're the other, you might need to add a couple chapters to the first part of your manuscript. There's nothing wrong with finding your real beginning after you've written the end.
I find it helpful to think through what disturbs my character's homeworld, what invites her to change. In the book I'm working on now, my main character's world is disturbed when her best friend finds out she's moving. It packs a punch for the main character, Ellie, because her entire social life is tied to this one friend. I knew I needed to establish the dynamics of their group and friendships before the reader could grasp why Lucy moving was such a big deal.
What about you? How do you feel about the beginning of your story? Do you have a favorite opening scene, either in a book or movie?