“I never judged a book by its beginning. It felt like the first and last date I’d once had, both of us smiling too brightly. No, I opened to a page in the middle, where the author wasn’t trying to impress me.” ― Janet Skeslien Charles, The Paris Library
I read that quote a few days ago and chuckled. I’d never thought of it that way, but there’s something profound in that statement and I’ve tried to commit that thought to memory as I’ve further developed my current work-in-progress ever since. My writing should be consistently impressive so that my readers will get past the first date and crave a second date. Or chapter. Book? My metaphor is falling apart a little bit here.
When I started my book, my best friend agreed to be my beta reader. In those early days, when I was just trying to figure out how to write a fantasy novel for the first time, she told me to think of the first twenty pages of my novel like the Kindle Preview. If an agent doesn’t like the first twenty pages of my novel, they won’t take me on as a client. It was great advice, and after figuring out my plotline a little more, I went back and restructured the beginning of my book so that the first twenty pages weren’t just about men on horses.
I’ve struggled with the same problem at the beginning of almost every story that I’ve ever written: I always feel like my beginnings aren’t starting at the right place. Maybe I struggle to write exposition in a way that doesn’t feel forced, both as a writer and a reader of my own work. But my first novel, Exile, felt like I’d started a TV show three episodes in. How do you start a story in the middle of someone’s life? How do you create a world for readers when your narrator has already been living in that world for 30 years? It’s hard to explain what’s going on through the voice of someone who understands it already. I’ve particularly struggled with this since writing fantasy, mostly because I don’t quite understand the world I’m creating yet and am winging it a little bit, texting my best friend in all caps when I come up with something particularly cool.
Here are a few ways to start your novel that will captivate a reader and make them want to read past page one.
Prologues - Starting at the Beginning
The way I remedied my three-episodes-in dilemma for Exile was with a prologue. Prologues are tricky, and not always the right answer. A few years ago, I reached out to a friend of my mom's, a published author named Gilly Segal. I sent her the first twenty pages of Exile, prologue included, for critique. This is a direct quote from her response email to me. “Prologues are sometimes a great intro to a book. Other times, they operate like a teaser to hook the reader but there's a long way until "real" action. I like to say novels are about change. The inciting incident should be something big enough to move the characters out of their current trajectory and into the one they're going to follow in the novel. Then, start a moment or two in time before the big change occurs, to ground your reader in the world of the story as it was, and quickly get to the point of change that kicks off the action. Do you need the prologue to hook the reader? Could a tightly crafted first chapter or two perform the same function?” This is brilliant insight and made me rethink and rewrite the whole thing. Thank you, Gilly!
In Medias Res- Starting In The Middle
Another way to begin your story is by starting in the middle. It sounds counterintuitive, but starting in the middle and then flashing back to when the inciting incident takes place can be a great way to give your readers some exposition before you get to the conflict so that you don’t crowd your action chapters with too much information that will make their eyes glaze over. So if you give them a bit of context early on, you can have them already engaged with the storyline before it truly starts.
The Epilogue - Starting At The End
This one is controversial - why spoil things for your readers? Some authors and readers think it’s sacrilegious to reveal your ending, but a good deal of authors have turned linear story progression on its head. Some deliver those spoilers to you on a platter by serving it up in the first few pages. Sometimes they’ll go in full reverse chronological order, so you’re going back in time to rewind all the way to the beginning. I actually enjoy reading this kind of book and have found it a brilliant way to connect the dots in a particularly complicated plot. It’s a fun and fascinating way to tell a story, because yes, you know the ending, but do you know how it came to be? Not at all! The story still has a chance to slowly reveal to you why this thing happened, or who’s responsible. The author can deliberately leave details out that the narrative fills in as you rewind the clock until it all makes sense.
Your first page is your hook, and the first line is how you reel readers in. Stay tuned for a post on how to craft the perfect first line!