You’ll hear it over and over again — opening lines are important. Your opening makes a promise about the rest of the story, article, or book. It tells readers what to expect, setting the stage for the rest of the story to unfold — and hopefully hooking their interest.
What You Promise
The first scene should identify your story’s genre. This can be trickier than it sounds. Say it’s a romance, but the main character doesn’t meet the love interest until later. Can you at least suggest her loneliness or desire for romance? (And get that love interest in there as soon as possible!)
Maybe you’re writing a story involving magic, time travel, ghosts, or a step into another dimension, but you want to show the normal world before you shift into fantasy. That’s fine, but if we start reading about a realistic modern setting and then halfway through magic comes out of nowhere, you’ll surprise your reader — and not in a good way. Your story will feel like two different stories clumsily stitched together.
If you’re going to start “normal” and later introduce an element like magic or aliens, try to hint at what’s to come. Maybe the main character is wishing that magic existed — that’s enough to prepare the reader. In my novel for ages 9+, The Genie’s Gift, an early draft didn’t introduce magic until chapter 5, when the heroine is on her quest. In revisions, I introduced magic in the opening paragraph:
Anise knew the candy must be enchanted. The genie cook always put some kind of protection on the food, so no one could eat it until he said so. Would it stick her jaws together so she couldn’t speak? Turn her lips and tongue blue? Taste like camel dung? But Anise didn’t want to wait until after the wedding. She was hungry now.
For this book, the title and cover help establish the setting anyway, but I still don’t want to make readers wait, especially impatient kids. For other genres, the title and cover may not be quite as clear-cut, and people using certain e-readers might not even see the cover or remember much about a book they bought some time ago. Give them a reminder right away.
When and Where
Your opening should also identify the story’s setting. This includes when and where we are, if it’s historical or set in another country or world. Once again, you don’t want your reader to assume a modern story and then discover halfway through that it’s actually a historical setting. They’ll blame you for their confusion. In my middle grade mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, not only do I identify the historical setting with a tagline, but I then follow with a scene that is clearly not contemporary America:
Year Seven, Day Five of the First Month of Summer
in the reign of Pharaoh Ramses the Third
Seshta ran. Her feet pounded the hard-packed dirt street. She lengthened her stride and raised her face to Ra, the sun god. Her ba, the spirit of her soul, sang at the feel of her legs straining, her chest thumping, her breath racing.
In a contemporary story, you may not identify a specific city, but the reader should have a feel for whether this is inner-city, small-town, suburban, or whatever. Whispers in the Dark, a romantic suspense written as Kris Bock, features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. The opening immediately establishes both the unusual setting, and the "fish out of water" challenge for the main character:
What had I gotten myself into?
I closed my eyes. Yes, I was driving, but a moment of distraction seemed safe enough, since I hadn’t seen another car in half an hour. Even the jackrabbits and rattlesnakes were hiding in the shade, leaving the road clear of everything but rocks and ruts.
I was starting an adventure. I had to remind myself of that—an adventure. I wanted to be here. I wanted to get away from the city, the classroom and office, the people. You couldn’t get much farther away than this, a tiny cluster of seven-hundred-year-old ruins in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. I had found the middle of nowhere.
As I had wanted, I reminded myself.
Who and What’s Up
Your opening pages should focus on your main character. You may find exceptions to this rule, but your readers will assume that whoever is prominent in the opening pages is the MC. Switching can cause confusion. You should also establish your point of view early. If you’ll be switching points of view, don’t wait too long to make the first switch. In novels, typically you want to show your alternate point of view in the second chapter and then switch back and forth with some kind of regular rhythm.
And of course, you want some kind of challenge or conflict in your opening. This doesn’t have to be the main plot problem — you may need additional set up before your main character takes on that challenge or even knows about it. But try to make sure that your opening problem relates to the main problem. It may even lead to it.
In my latest Kris Bock romantic suspense, Counterfeits, the story opens with the heroine returning to the New Mexico art camp her grandmother ran. Jenny is grieving over her grandmother’s recent death and wondering how this will change her life. Two pages later, she wakes up in the night to hear people searching the house. During her escape, Jenny crashes into a sexy man, an old friend who seems to have secrets of his own. She doesn’t figure out what’s going on until much later. Still, the book opens with a character who has problems and quickly gets into greater trouble.
The Fast Start
So, an opening should introduce many elements of the story. Yet you can’t take too long to set the scene, or your readers may lose interest. You want to start in a moment of action, where something is changing, and cut the background. But don’t rush things — take a little time to set up the situation, so it makes sense and we care about the characters and what’s happening to them.
Fast, but not too fast. How do you find the balance?
You can test your opening by seeing how much you can cut. What if you delete the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page? Does the story still make sense? Does it get off to a faster start? What if you cut the whole first chapter, or several chapters? If you can’t cut, can you condense? Another one of my romantic suspense novels, Rattled, involves a treasure hunt in the New Mexico desert. I jump into the story when the main character has found the key to the treasure, and give more detail throughout the opening chapters:
Erin could hardly believe what she was seeing. Could this be it? After all this time waiting, searching, had she finally, finally, found what she was looking for?
She fumbled in her desk drawer for a magnifying glass and studied the symbols in the photo more closely. At a glance, they looked like your standard Indian petroglyphs. You could find them throughout the Southwest, tucked away in caves or scattered among boulder fields.
But this was different.
If she was right—and she had to be right—these symbols were a map. A map that could lead her to one of the greatest caches of buried treasure ever.
On the other hand, if your beginning feels confusing or rushed, you might want to try starting earlier in the story. Try setting up a small problem that grabs the reader’s attention, luring them in until you can get to the main problem. In The Well of Sacrifice, another of my novels for ages 9+, the Maya are dealing with famine, disease, and marauders in the early chapters, even before the king dies and an evil high priest tries to take over. That gives readers time to understand these characters and their unusual world.
The inciting incident — the problem that gets the story going — should happen as soon as possible, but not until the moment is ripe. The reader must have enough understanding of the character and situation to make the incident meaningful. Too soon, and the reader is confused. Too late, and the reader gets bored first.
Options for Fast Starts:
· Start in the action, at a moment of change. Then work in the back story.
· Start with two people on the page.
· Start in the middle of a fight or other conflict.
· Start with a cliffhanger — something powerful about to happen.
· Start with a small problem that leads to the big problem, or is an example of the main problem.
Chris’s book Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer. If you struggle with plot or suspect your plotting needs work, this book can help. Use the Plot Outline Exercise to identify and fix plot weaknesses. Learn how to get off to a fast start, prop up a sagging middle, build to a climax, improve your pacing, and more.
Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; and The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page.
As Kris Bock, Chris writes novels of suspense and romance for adults. Counterfeits starts a new series about art theft. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. Rattled follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page.