Your book's beginning—specifically, the first five pages—are the most important for your novel. Why? The first few pages of your book set the tone for the entire novel. Readers who aren't sure if they want to buy your book will start reading at Chapter 1 and, if your story doesn't capture their attention, they'll put it down and move on.
Making sure your story captures readers' attention with likeable characters and an intriguing opening scene is, therefore, of paramount importance.
It doesn’t matter how good the rest of your book is if the first five pages aren’t done well. Especially with tools such as Amazon’s “Look Inside!” option that allows readers to read the first few pages of your manuscript to see if they’d like to buy it, it is more critical than ever that the first five pages are pure gold. If you decide to do the traditional publishing route, this is even more true. Countless times, I have witnessed books sent to the publisher’s “slush pile” because the first five pages were not intriguing enough.
But writing a powerful first scene isn't always so easy. Let's talk about a few effective ways to create an awesome first scene that sets up, foreshadows, or introduces your book's overall plot.
Create Your Opening Scene
The opening scene is where readers are just starting to get to know your characters, the problem they're facing, and your book's overall plot goal. These first few pages are so important to get the balance of raising intrigue, providing information, introducing characters, and setting up your book's plot goal.
- Option 1: Introduce the story idea. Let's reference Peter Benchley's novel Jaws. In the book—just like in the movie—a woman goes out for a late-night swim and is eaten by a great white shark...and thus, we have the story idea of Jaws, that a shark terrorizes a seaside town.
- Option 2: Foreshadow the story idea. For an example, I'll take Paula Munier's example of Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of AJ Fikry in The Writer's Guide to Beginnings.
In the opening scene, 31-year-old book saleswoman Amelia Loman is stepping off the ferry to Alice Island, on her way to her first meeting with AJ Fikry, owner of Island Books. She takes a call from Boyd, her latest "online dating failure," determined ot let him down gently; only he's insulting, apolgetic, and finally, weepy. Finally, she tells him that it would never work out because he's "not much of a reader." She hangs up and remembers her mother's warning that "novels have ruined Amelia for real men." And as she nearly walks right past the purple Victorian cottage that is Island Books, Amelia worries that her mother might be right.
In this scene, the foreshadowing is subtle but clear: Amelia needs to a man who reads, and she's about to meet one who may seem unsuitable in nearly every other way.
- Option 3: Set up the story idea. In Jeannette Walls' memoir The Glass Castle, the opening scene depits Jeannette sitting in a taxi cab, wondering if she had overdressed for the evening, when she looked out the window and saw her mother digging through a Dumpster. In describing the encounter with her mother, she sets up the rest of the story about her horrifying childhood.
Some tools to help you write your opening scene
Look, I get it: Writing the opening scene of your book isn't always the easiest thing to do. There's so much to tell—the backstory, the characters, the current scene... Here are some tools to help you write your opening scene:
- Description. Describing the setting is important for readers to be able to understand what's going on. Your opening scene might be in the kitchen of someone's home, in the middle of an enchanted forest, or on a rocket in space. No matter how large or small your opening scene is, it's important that you convey it effectively. Show the setting through your characters' eyes, and avoid "telling" or summarizing too much.
- What's at stake. It's critical to set up the stakes of your story right away to make the book get off to a quick start. Readers like to know why they're reading the book. This means that if you don't clearly share what drives your main character's motivations (i.e., what he or she will lose if he doesn't achieve the book's plot goal), your readers won't be as engaged as they should be.
- Backstory talks about what happened before your story starts. Some authors prefer to format backstory in italics, others choose to add a section break above and below this section to separate it from the regular text, others include it in the story without any special formatting. I recommend authors keep a book's backstory to about 4 pages (1,000 words) max, and don't dive into the backstory right off the bat. Give readers the chance to spend a few minutes with the story's protagonist in the opening scene. Readers should have a solid understanding of what's going on in the "front story" before taking them back.
- Inner thoughts are a great way to show what your book's main character is thinking. When formatted in italics (the standard), this also makes for a nice variation of text on your page (regular text, text in italics, and dialogue). In a similar way, dialogue can move the plot forward and show character development.
Your book's first five pages need to be a mix of introduction (with a clear description of the opening scene), and character development, intrigue (i.e., raising the stakes), and this is a difficult balance to make. If you'd like help with this, contact me for a First Chapter Critique service to see how you're doing.
- Clarity. Remember, readers are entering your story for the first time—so take things slow and don't overwhelm the reader. Thrusting too much information on the reader all at once, using ambiguous or unclear writing, or not creating enough intrigue will prevent your readers from getting into the story as much as they could.
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Book editor Kristen Hamilton is the owner and sole employee of
Kristen Corrects, Inc., where she provides manuscript editing
services for traditionally and self-publishing authors. Several
authors whose books she has edited have won awards and have
topped Amazon's best sellers lists.
Reading is Kristen's passion, so when the workday is over, she
can usually be found curled up with a good book alongside her
four cats. She loves watching cat videos and scary movies,
eating pizza, teaching herself French, and traveling, and she is
likely planning her next vacation. She lives outside of Boise, ID.