Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)
We've likely all had the experience of picking up a book, reading the first scene, and having no interest in continuing the story. I would guess we've also all had times when we've read a first scene, felt instantly hooked, and flipped the page to start the next scene.
Obviously this is the feeling we want to create with our own stories. So how do we know if we've started our book in a good place?
Here are some things to keep in mind when you're picking where to start your story:
1. The opening of your book is a promise to your reader.
What is it you want to promise them? Is it, "This is a fast-paced adventure novel"? Or, "This story will follow a quirky character and takes place in an imaginative world"?
Different books have different feels to them, and you want to make sure you're prompting the correct feeling for your type of story. Otherwise your reader will be disappointed if the book opens like a fast-paced adventure before easing into a coming-of-age novel.
It's a good idea to read several opening scenes from books that are published in the same genre you write. Epic fantasies open in a different way than romance novels, and if you want to appeal to readers of those genres, it's smart to study the writers who are doing well.
2. In general (I stress, in general) it's best to open with your main character.
Preferably something that makes the reader want to spend time with them. That doesn't necessarily mean we have to find them warm and cuddly. Maybe we find them intriguing, or their situation is sympathetic, or we can relate personally to their struggle.
One of the reasons starting with your main character is a good idea is the whole promise thing. When you highlight a character right away, you're telling the reader, "Hey, this character is so important, we're going to start with them. Go ahead and bond."
3. Start close to the journey.
Sometimes my story ideas come to me in the form of an opening scene. I love it when that happens. When they don't, I have to work a bit harder to figure out where they should begin. If that's the case, I try to think about what moment in the story will send my character on her journey.
In the historical mystery I recently finished, I knew my main character started her journey when her best friend was reported missing. So I worked backward from that point. What did we need to know about the best friend before she went missing? What did we need to know about my main character to make it clear she wouldn't stand idly by? Who else needed to be introduced?
Working backwards from when your character starts his or her journey can help you nail down the best place to start.
4. Remember your W's.
When you write your opening scene, you can ground your reader by remembering the W's. Who is this story about? What is happening, or what is about to happen? When is this taking place? Where are we? Why are we here?
I've read several contest entries where I didn't know until page three that this was a historical novel. Or where the main character's name isn't stated anywhere in the first chapter. It's easy to do this because we know what's going on, and this is a simple way to check that we've provided necessary details.
If you have no idea how to start your story, don't panic. There are lots of writers who write a few chapters before they find the beginning, so don't get discouraged if you can't clearly see the best opening scene.
Do you struggle with beginnings? Do you have tips that have worked well for you?