I’ve spent the last two weeks writing the opening pages of my WIP. After 5-6 versions, I think I’ve landed on one that will stick around until I get further into the story. Then, chances are, I’ll go back and revise it again.
By the time I’m done, I will probably have written and rewritten my opening a dozen times.
Why so much angst over 500-1000 words? Because the success of a book rises and falls on the strength of those opening pages. It is by these pages that an agent, editor, or reader decides whether the book is worth reading.
A good opening must accomplish four things. It must:
- Grab the readers’ attention,
- Set the narrative’s tone,
- Establish the characters, and
- Introduce the world the readers are about to enter.
And, it must do these things in an interesting and entertaining fashion.
My struggles to nail the opening got me thinking of how, when it comes to opening chapters, first-time writers often miss the mark. Most of the time the problem comes down to two things: Mistaking throat clearing for narrative and info dumping.
Does the Reader Need to Know?
Throat-clearing is when you’re writing for self-discovery. You’re getting a feel for the characters’ backstories and personalities. You’re uncovering details about their world. This kind of digging around is fine for a first draft as you’ll discover details that are important to the story.
Let’s say you’re writing about a heroine trying to escape her past by building a new life in a new town. You open the book with her on the train (or stagecoach or boat or highway) traveling to the new destination. She stares out the window studying the passing landscape and reflecting on her life. Perhaps this inner monologue is broken up with an interaction in which she relays some additional information through dialogue.
Are any of these details important to the story? That is, do they move the story forward? Does the landscape outside the window matter if she’s never going to see it again? If so, you should save your description for the real setting of the story.
As for the backstory you may have revealed, ask yourself if the reader needs to know this information in Chapter 1, or if the details would have a greater impact if they were revealed later in the story. You have 200-400 pages to share details. You don’t need to tell everything at once.
The Actual Beginning
The real problem with info dumping or excessive world-building is that it pushes back the true start of your story. You want to begin your novel as close to the inciting incident as possible. That moment in the story where everything for your protagonists and sets them on their journey.
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, ‘When does the trouble begin?’
Let’s go back to our heroine on the train. Why is this scene important? Is something vital to the plot going to happen on the train or does the real story begin once she arrives at her new destination?
Finally, be judicious with description. Yes, you want to set the stage. Yes, you want to bring the world alive. But make sure what you’re describing matters to the story. Is the woman who is sitting next to her on the train going to play a role in the book? If not, then you don’t need to describe her dress or profile in minute details. For that matter, ask yourself why you’re spending time on her at all. Does she matter to the scene?
The bottom line is this: Too often, new writers waste their first chapter on information that doesn’t serve the story. Don’t let your story get lost. Be smart about where and how you begin.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an opening chapter to rewrite for the 7th time.
Note: My buddy Donna Alward and I shared our Dos and Don’ts for Kick-Butt Openings on an episode of Step into the Story last year. You can watch it below: