In countless writing classes and workshops, aspiring writers are urged to make their opening pages memorable, to “hook the reader” from the outset. Easy to say, hard to do, judging from the common problems I see in opening pages I’m asked to critique. Here are some pitfalls you may want to avoid on your way to drawing readers into your fictional world, and some suggestions for making your opening pages shine.
Spending too much time describing the protagonist’s ordinary routine. Showing your protag waking up, getting dressed, making coffee, reading the paper, commuting to work slows your story and makes the reader impatient to know how is this day different from any other. Because it’s that difference that makes us keep reading, give it to us right away.
Beginning with a flashback. If you must use one at all, make it later in the story, after your reader has invested emotionally in your protagonist.
Beginning with a phone call or an alarm clock that wakes the character is a cliche. Don”t do it.
Beginning with action for the sake of excitement. Opening your story with a bank robbery, a runaway stagecoach, a hurricane can work, if the action is tied to your main character so that your readers can root for her to foil the robber, rein in the horses, escape the rising waters. The opening action must be related somehow to the plot and not be there only for the sake of excitement.
So then, how should you begin? First of all, try hinting at your story problem on the first page. In her novel, Beyond this Moment, Tamera Alexander does this beautifully. In her opening sentence the heroine steps off the train in a new town. Three sentences later: “Each step was heavy, coerced, a reminder of what had brought her to this place. And of just how far she had fallen. ” Let the reader know your protagonist’s goal, and give some clue to the choices she will have to make to achieve it.
Create an immediate disturbance for your character, something that draws him out of his ordinary world. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler refers to this as the call to adventure. In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell reminds us that people read books in order to worry. The writer’s job is to immediately create a significant problem for the main character. Will the detective find the killer before he finds his next victim? Will the schoolmarm win the affections of the taciturn cowboy? Will the time traveler find his way back to the worm hole before it’s too late? “Speed in the opening is a matter of disturbance, not high levels of action,” Bell says. “The faster we worry about a character, the quicker the bond. And the greater our desire to turn the page.”