If you’re wondering how to start a book, it helps to think about it in terms of real estate. Now, I’m not a real estate agent, but I do know there are things that real estate agents do to sell a house: they play up the important features. Their other favorite thing to talk about, if it’s good, is the neighborhood and the location of the property. After all, isn’t it all about location, location, location? Well, these considerations are applicable to novel craft, because once you know the important information features and the prime locations for material in your story, you can play around and really present your reader with important information, in a way that seems important, and in places that will make it seem even more important. Let me explain…
How to Start a Book: Presentation Matters
The way you present information impacts the way a reader interprets its importance. For example, if a character goes on and on about the Thanksgiving turkey, describing its crisp brown skin, succulent aroma, the bedding of rosemary twigs upon which it rests, the legs tied together with twine, etc., and completely glosses over the conversation that reveals that the character’s parents are getting a divorce, what do you think will be memorable in that scene? The more descriptive (and scene) space you give something, the more characters think and talk about it, the more important it will become in the reader’s mind.
So this is what you want to avoid when you’re looking at how to open a novel — describing stuff that won’t be important as the novel progresses. On the other hand, if you’re aware of the importance of your novel opening, you can effectively direct reader attention where it should be. In other words, prime real estate in your novel is anything that takes up a lot of space (it’s good and noteworthy to have acreage, you know?). Readers will automatically equate space and words spent talking/thinking about something with its overall value to the book.
The Most Important Locations in Your Novel
When you’re learning how to start a book, it’s helpful to know which areas to focus on. These areas — or “prime real estate” — are as follows: the first page of the novel, the first paragraph of a new chapter, and the last paragraph of a chapter. These spaces are special and should not be treated like any others in your manuscript. After all, a real estate agent who has a property with panoramic city views, a Central Park West address, or a location with a private beach, goes above and beyond when listing this special location. The ad is glossier, there is a whole album of pictures, the font is more refined, etc. You should lavish care on your entire manuscript, of course, but pay special attention, after you’ve polished everything, to the prime real estate listed above.
Whatever you put on the first page of your manuscript will seem really important to the rest of it. Starting your novel with something that never appears again (and this is where prologues can get hairy) or giving the reader all description and no character — these are missed opportunities. How you start your book is your chance to ground the reader in what has just happened or what will happen for the rest of the chapter (here’s a related post on how to start a chapter). The end of a chapter has one job and one job only, just like that house with the panoramic city view: sell. You need to give your reader a new detail, a cliffhanger, or just enough tension so that they immediately flip to the next page instead of using the chapter break as a natural resting point and putting the book down.
Most novels that have strong narrative really use the prime real estate as a special opportunity. It’s there to keep the reader informed, to highlight important information or characters, to keep the reader hooked, and to otherwise anchor the structure of the novel. When you’re learning how to open a novel, make sure you’re paying special attention to the prime real estate you’re working with, just like a real estate agent would.
Want to know how to start a book with a bang? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll help you develop a compelling opening.