The first few pages can make or break a book. They can mean the choice between a publishing contract or receiving a form rejection in the mail. After publication, they need to hook readers in just as they need to hook literary agents and editors beforehand. While there are many ways to successfully begin a book, they generally have a few things in common. Take note I’m writing this from a YA standpoint.
Introduce the main character
The main character is the person the reader is supposed to root for throughout the story. He needs to be put in a situation that gives the reader a glimpse into who he is and hopefully what he cares about. Sometimes, such as in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone, the main character is not introduced immediately, but someone important to the story is. Harry appears as a baby later in the chapter. However, we do learn that Harry has somehow survived an attack that will define who he is and how people see him for the rest of his life.
Despite this slight deviation, the main character is still introduced early in the story. We need to know who the main character is before the end of the first chapter, and if his introduction is delayed beyond the first few pages there must be a legitimate reason for it, not simply to be different or to attempt to create an air of mystery. Delaying the introduction of the main character simply because you want to make him mysterious will simply bore the reader.
The first scene needs to make the reader question what is happening and what is going to happen. While you don’t want to confuse the reader, some questions raised in the beginning of the novel should remain unresolved until the end. The attack on Harry Potter’s family in the first book raises the question of “Why did Voldemort kill the Potters?” and “Why couldn’t he kill Harry?” The first question isn’t resolved until the end of book five and the second is revealed in bits and pieces.
Stir conflict relevant to the story
Conflict drives all scenes, and your first scene is no exception. There must be some kind of conflict here, be it an actual argument or something more subtle such as a decision that must be made. Mundane events will not do here. The main character needs to be thrown a little off-balance so we can see how they react to the situation.
What will not do for conflict? Main characters getting up in the morning and going about their daily routine is an example of something that will bore the reader. However, something completely random cooked up for no purpose other than to make trouble is also a bad idea. The conflict should have something to do with the main plot.
In the first draft of Coldfire, I had the main character get into a fight right from the beginning. There was no grounding, no explanation of who was who and the fight was resolved in that one scene. This is an example of a poor beginning. In my most recent draft, the main character still gets into a fight in the first scene, but it doesn’t happen immediately and the attackers have something to do with the main character’s checkered past. While they don’t crop up again, they serve to demonstrate the main character’s motivation for leaving the city, which sparks the beginning of the whole plot. It still might not be an amazing beginning, but it is a serviceable one.
As writers we have centuries of writing to look back on. One disadvantage of having such a legacy to live up to is we sometimes borrow overdone techniques from other writers, such as having a narrator describe herself in a mirror. You’re better off coming up with something fresh than relying purely on what has already been done. Come up with new metaphors or similes if you wish to use them, think of a new way to distribute your characters’ physical attributes throughout the scene. While it’s impossible to entirely avoid other people’s influence on your writing, coming up with new techniques will ensure your work is not tired or lacking in originality.
Make it count
You only have one chance to get your beginning right in the eyes of the reader. Revise as much as you need to make your beginning sing. No two writers will write a beginning exactly the same. Also note it’s possible to create a gripping beginning while ignoring some of the suggestions above. If you can, do it. There are no writing police. Write the best book you can and don’t be afraid to break the rules you’ve heard if breaking them improves your story.
What do you think makes or breaks a story’s beginning?