How to Start a Book: Focus on the Prime Real Estate

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
Want to know how to start a book? Think about it in terms of real estate. Which areas are crucial in terms of selling readers on your story?

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. (More on writing descriptions.)

So this is what you want to avoid when you’re looking at how to start a book — 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 (more tips on chapter structure). 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 story 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 start a book, 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.

28 Replies to “How to Start a Book: Focus on the Prime Real Estate”

  1. NICE!!! Never thought of it as prime real estate. But you’re so right!!!

    Thanks. Happy Friday.

  2. Oooh, I hadn’t thought about this in a while! Thanks for the reminder and the great advice. I’ll be paying special attention to those with my ms.

  3. You hear it all the time about the first page. But it didn’t occur to me that the first paragraph of a new chapter and last paragraph were important too. It makes total sense. Thanks for reminding me, Mary.

  4. Great post. It reminds me of something Donald Maass said in his book THE FIRE IN FICTION. He encouraged writers to really focus on the first and last sentences of sections and chapters and make them really shine, because, like you said, they get a lot of attention.

  5. Great advice, you’re so right. Those are all opportunities to keep selling our story to the readers and keep them engaged. I want to comb through my MS now and make sure I’m using my prime real estate wisely.

  6. Great post! I’ve come to realize just how important and difficult to craft the first page can be. You have to hook the reader, but if you drop them too quickly into high-stakes action, the odds that they don’t know the MC well enough to really care what happens are high.

    In writing my YA paranormal WIP, I’ve been paying special attention to first pages. I’ve noticed that an awful lot of books in this category start with prologues that set the tone, then revert to backstory and character development for the beginning of the first chapter. Is this why, and do you think that the tone-setting prologue is good practice?

  7. Nicely put. This is a great way to remember these elements. As usual, thanks Mary.

  8. Thanks for this great reminder. My last batch of beta readers got frustrated with me when I’d send only three chapters at a time.

    “You can’t leave me hanging. What happened next? Just one more page.”

    That’s when I knew my advertising had paid off!

  9. Love. This. Another slam-dunk/got-to-the-helpul-facts post, Mary. This, IMO, is something to especially watch for during the final edits, where you analyze each chapter to see if it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.

  10. That is so true. It’s always the last paragraphs that carry the tension into the next chapter and the first paragraph of the next chapter just carries the tension or creates new tension in a new character or scene.

  11. Great analogy. I struggle with those last paragraphs. This will help me to remember to make them cliff0hangers or open doors, I hope.



  12. Thanks! This is something I should known, but don’t always remember. So often my first page is just a warm-up and I end up having to cut and rearrange. You are so helpful to those of us trying to get by on instinct!

  13. Very informative article. The question of how much and what type of description to include has been a big one for me as there are so many different ways to address each situation. Your comments make good sense. Thanks!

  14. Nice reminder not to go off on a descriptive tangent when it’s not really important, but to highlight those moments that are. If the bathroom is small, the focus should be on the huge bathtub and it’s advantages. 😉

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