By default, nobody wants to read your book. Not even your mother. Not really. She’ll humor you, she’ll hope for you, but she doesn’t want to.
Since nobody is instilled with an innate commitment to read your book, you must craft that desire personally. Your opening paragraph, hell, your opening sentence is as much largess most people will be offer.
As any good salesperson knows, a crack is an opportunity and anything that opens a little can be forced to open a lot. All you need is confidence, technique, and the guts to push forward.
Yes, that is a lot to ask from the first page, which is why so many writers stop before they get started.
Remember, the first page isn’t the first page you write, it is the first page someone reads. Of all the darlings you must get used to killing, your original first page should always be ripe for the axe.
#1 – Connect the reader to your character
Your opening sentence shouldn’t be a warning shot. No haphazard hail Mary you hope lands. It needs to be well aimed and land solid. It sets a tone, introducing the reader to you and your world.
Like any first impression, it has as many don’ts attached as it has do’s. Let’s hit the do’s first.
You want to achieve a minimum of one and a maximum of three of these in your first sentence. Three is pushing it, you might want to try for that all-in approach, but you will just end up coming across disorganized. A page long sentence can be an interesting, impressive feat, but as a first sentence it reeks of smarter-than-the-room and will alienate most readers.
Connect the Reader to a Character
Elicit an Emotion
Snapshot a Vivid Image
Diving off a cliff puts the reader immediately into the action. In film school you will see this as in media res. It works by forcing the reader to accept everything that is currently happening while also inviting them to see what happens next or hear what brought the character to this moment.
To execute this action-packed introduction, you need to have a firm idea of what is happening and deliver the setting with confidence, don’t over explain and don’t linger.
How to Start a Story Example:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” – The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Connecting a reader to a character is done in several ways. You can show off a strength, reveal a weakness, or share an in-character insight. Each of these gives the reader a hook into the character, helping them to understand why they should follow along to see the character’s arc.
How to Start a Story Example:
“Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever.” — The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
#2 – Produce intrigue
Producing intrigue works a lot the same as the Dive. The difference is you want to leave more questions than generate answers.
Again, the more you know about the story when you drop this first hint, the more clearly it will communicate.
Avoid vague prophecy, hit them with something that will echo when the reader arrives at the resolution.
How to Start a Story Example:
“Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.” – Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard
#3 – Elicit an emotion
Eliciting an emotion is about getting the reader to feel something, not just displaying emotive language. You don’t want the reader to feel for the character or the world, as those fall into other categories.
With this opening, you need to place the reader in a specific emotional headspace to engage with the rest of the page.
You accomplish this by using trigger phrases and touchstones.
How to Start a Story Example:
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – Neuromancer by William Gibson
#4 – Create a strong visual snapshot
Finally, a snapshot is exactly that, a picture painted in words. You don’t want to make a whole landscape. Take a look at a random post card for five seconds.
What stood out to you? How would you describe that scene to someone else?
That’s the essence of a snapshot, the highlights, and standouts, not the overview.
How to Start a Story Example:
“The thing was big and white and hairy, and it was eating all the ice cream in the walk-in freezer.” — Monster by A. Lee Martinez
While you toil to create these openings, you want to avoid a few key elements. Each of these can destroy your efforts and drive the reader into dismissal mode.
Avoid these elements when starting a story:
“He woke up”
World building is about establishing what your world is, not what it isn’t. Describing how the regular world works and then adding ‘but mine doesn’t do that’ wastes a lot of time.
Expect your reader to know mundane information and don’t bother repeating it. It bores you to write and the reader to read.
Cliché’s have their place in an established book genre. Don’t confuse a genre trope with a cliché. What you want to avoid is saying the same thing in the same way.
Your fantasy world may well have a dungeon and a dragon, but you don’t want to put those facts too close to each other.
Cliché will kill emotion in its cradle. Readers want to feel something genuine and cliché is the opposite of that.
Far too many science fiction stories start with someone coming out of some kind of sleep. There is a temptation to start the story from the very first conscious moment of the character but remember that you don’t even really remember the first few minutes of your day.
Start the story where you remember starting your day, usually after breakfast and post stimulant.
Not convinced? Alien 3 started with Ripley waking up in a tube. Nobody likes Alien 3, ergo, no starting by waking up.
#5 – Construct a compelling first paragraph
If everything has gone to plan you have gotten a foot in the door, wedged the sucker open, stepped into the vestibule, and presented your wary, but accepting, mark… er reader, with your wares.
You haven’t made the sale yet, but you have an opportunity to deliver a spiel before they work a clever excuse to get you out.
Seize that advantage by showing that your opening sentence leads into an opening paragraph that isn’t just more of the same but a makes some promises that most of the rest of the pages are also going to offer something worth sticking around for.
Having gained some headway, you have more to lose than gain. That is, there are more wrong things to do with the first paragraph than there are right things.
The right course of action has three options for your starting paragraphs:
Stay the Course
Ramp Up Gradually
Staying the course
Staying the course means keeping the same tone and attention you presented in the first sentence. This works best for mystery stories or when you have started with a Dive.
In both of these cases, the idea is often to put the reader immediately into the world and you need to be careful not to shake the hook loose with too much pull.
Example: Back to Stephen King and The Gunslinger, the paragraph after the opening line is a delicious snapshot of the desert mentioned. It holds the reader, drawing them further into the enormity of the task presented by the preceding sentence. He already has us ready to find out more, so he sets the hook gently, rather than pulling us right into the boat.
Note also how he goes from one strong type of opening, the Dive (mixed with a character connection), into a snapshot. Right there he’s established three strong openings without breaking a sweat.
Ramping up gradually
Ramping up gradually is seen more often in character connections and snapshots. With each detail you add through the paragraph, you build interest. The character gets slowly separated from other characters of their type.
If you start with a high school student, you see how they break the mold. If you start with a city, you reveal what makes that city unique.
Example: Consider the wide panoramic opening of EM Forester’s Passage to India, how he shows the country in an almost dreamlike shot you can immediately visualize. The book was written before film was invented and yet it used a standard technique employed in nearly all aerial establishing shots.
The hardest technique to use is the double down. Here you pull hard and fast, hoping to take the opportunity gained by your first sentence to really wow the reader.
While this can be done with several techniques, you see it least commonly with the Dive. If your action is strong enough, more action blows the reader away. However, a complication to the action works.
By slipping in some Emotion or Intrigue you deepen the scene without pushing the reader out.
Example: In The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, a mysterious circus appears in the first sentence. Complicating this matter is the first paragraph which suggests the sudden appearance wasn’t the kind where it was simply not advertised in advance but hints it may well have materialized out of nowhere.
Regardless of the approach, remember that the first paragraph serves to grow your lead and hold the reader through the chapter.
While pulling is the goal, the main aim, as mentioned several times, is to avoid pushing the reader out.
We call these the Goldilocks Paradox:
In the Too Obvious scenario the reader develops a certain “Simpson’s Did It!” mentality. If they feel like they know exactly where the story is going, that this is just one more reprise of the hero’s journey, the fetch quest, the star-crossed lovers, they will put it down.
Conversely, if you go Too Obscure, they won’t have any investment. Sure, nobody has ever really read a book quite like those composed by Thomas Pynchon, but then again, ask anyone what Gravity’s Rainbow is about and be prepared to get a ‘the what and who?’ in response.
You want to land in familiar territory with some new spins. You don’t want to reinvent story structure or character, not in the first chapter. You need to gain trust before you start pulling the rug out from a reader.
#6 – Leave a hint in the last paragraph
While the first sentence gets the reader hooked and the first paragraph makes promises, the last paragraph needs to introduce more concepts while limiting resolution.
That sounds like a heavy order because it is. It isn’t all that bad once you break down the components.
Aim for one of the following:
Hint at the End
Roadmap to a Plan
Each of these chapter endings provides the reader a reason to keep going. Many television pilots fail at this, they either wrap up the first story and have nowhere to go, or they toss in a last-minute villain preview to suggest a larger threat somewhere.
Sure, it worked out for Avengers to tease Thanos but they also had the advantage of a sixty year comics history to assure viewers they know how to build a multi-part story.
When you give a Hint you want it to be broad enough to be interesting but narrow enough that your resolution (within the next chapter or two) satisfies it completely.
If you toss an owl through a window to get Harry Hunter or Harry Potter to explore a magical world, you better make good on the magical world sooner than later.
If you are building up a large world and need to set several things in motion before you get to the major plot, which is a risky move in itself, you need to show the reader a roadmap. The hobbits need to get out of the Shire before they can get to Rivendell on their way to the ultimate goal.
#7 – Opt to end the chapter on a cliffhanger
Ending on a cliffhanger is usually a good call. The pulp stories of the 30s were sometimes christened Cliffhangers because they used this technique extensively. When releasing serial stories, it is the default way to go, how will our heroes get out of this sudden predicament!?
It makes the ending exciting and demands the reader pick up the next installment, or, in your case, turn the page and keep going just a bit further.
Cliffhanger Generation Tricks and Tips:
A Lingering Question
A Sudden Insight
The Depths Appear
Dropping a new character into the scene, especially one that shows up with the same aplomb as a first sentence Character Connection, gets the reader going. They want to know who this is, and why they will have importance to the next section.
The end of the first chapter of Stardust by Neil Gaiman does this perfectly, introducing us to a baby delivered via faery door. You have to turn the page to find out more.
In a Lingering Question scenario, you invite the reader to ponder something about the event that just transpired.
Why was it so hard, so easy, what was the significance of the turns? Any question that goes unanswered makes the reader wonder. In a serial, they would have to wonder for weeks, or months. In a book, they can always find out by turning a few pages.
Sudden insight works somewhat the opposite of the Lingering Question.
Here, a character understands something that just happened, something the reader may have been in the dark about, this often goes hand in hand with the next tip. Knowing what is at stake drives tension and the character and reader both being ‘in on it’ delivers.
The Depths Appear works well in science fiction, horror, and fantasy stories.
Any place where the world isn’t just what is known, where other dimensional forces can act, where a universe of possibilities can exist, it is possible for something else to be out there.
Alluding to the larger forces at the end of a first chapter puts the story into a context against these larger, more meaningful threats. This is especially a good idea when your first chapter reads like a self-contained story.
#8 – Try a bookend for the first chapter
I lied about the mother thing, turns out she really does want to read your book. She always did, she can’t not, mostly because she loves you.
This type of ending paragraph reflects the Bookend.
Here, you offer a mirror version of the first sentence to show that what has been set up and was so gripping originally has turned around. This works especially well for stories that start in a known world.
Dorothy isn’t in Kansas anymore, Alice ends up down the rabbit hole, and the once bright sky is now overcast with the coming troubles.
Ramy Vance is a Canadian who lives in Edinburgh with his wife, three-year-old kid and imaginary dog. With over 14 years experience in both traditional and self-publishing, Ramy is the bestselling author of over 13 novels and has helped nearly 450 aspiring writers with their publishing goals. Recently Ramy created Self-Publishing School’s Fundamentals of Fiction to help aspiring novelists tell their stories.