Oceans of ink and blog posts have been spilled talking about novel openings and hooking your reader in the opening chapter. And with good reason. Your novel’s first pages are the only thing an agent gets to see before they make their decision about you. Well, that and your query letter and synopsis, which is why those are such hot topics. But how do you nail your novel’s opening? The advice may be simpler than you think.
Great Novel Openings Start With Conflict and Action
I cannot overstate this point: Conflict and action are ways to hook a reader and transport them into your story. This is exactly the goal of your novel opening. So start in action, start with conflict. You may want to use a smaller, scene-specific conflict (or “bridging conflict“) to get readers on the bus initially. That also puts less pressure on you to start with mind-blowing high-stakes conflict, which can be difficult to pull off before the reader knows your character.
Basically, you want to give them just enough of your character so that they care, without over-indulging in information (see next section). And you want to put the character in motion. They want something, they’re experiencing an obstacle, they are frustrated or full of longing. This is a good state for your character to be in.
And, very importantly, they are starting in action, where they’re either being frustrated by an obstacle or striving toward something. You need that balance of internal conflict and external conflict.
If you start with too much external action right away, readers may not care because they don’t know the character, their objectives, or motivations.
If you start with no external action, then it’s easy to get bored. For example, a character sitting in their room, philosophizing about life and all the ways in which it has gone wrong. Maybe you start with generalities, for example:
Life can be funny sometimes. I spent 13 years thinking I was normal. Totally lame. And then one day, everything changed.
But the character is just sitting and thinking. There’s no action. This is 100% internal conflict, and you want to avoid it because nothing is actually happening.
Avoid Too Much Information in Novel Openings
In the same vein, information overload can sabotage your opening chapter in other ways. You might start with action, like the character getting bullied, but then you stop and go into great detail about the school, everyone in it, and the character’s history with the bully since kindergarten.
“Context is important!” you say. But you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. If you start a story with a ton of information about everyone we’re meeting and all of the details of a character’s life, the plan will not get off the ground, so to speak.
There has to be a balance of action and information, and if in doubt, action should win out. For every piece of information that you introduce in the first few pages of your opening chapter, ask yourself: Does this really, really, really have to be here? Otherwise, you may insert it later, or not at all.
Pick a Moment You Can Sustain
Finally, to tie your novel opening together, you need to pick a moment you can sustain for two or three pages without either stopping the action to give tons of information, and without leaving the moment to go into backstory (more information on writing backstory).
You want your readers to get a foothold in the story. The way they do that is to sink into a moment they can lose themselves in. If you open with a bullying scene, let’s get that scene from beginning to end. Let’s get dialogue. Let’s get action. Let’s get a sense of our character as he or she experiences this, otherwise called interiority. Put the reader in the moment.
If you currently start with general philosophizing (per the example above), a ton of information, a lot of jumping around in time to gather various details, or without a sense of balanced internal and external conflict, it’s time to take another look. Your beginning really is your make-or-break. So it’s your job to make it good.
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5 Replies to “Novel Openings: Nail the Opening Chapter”
I like to go back after I’ve reached the end of the story and dwell on those opening pages. I often change them based on how I feel about the entire work once it’s completed. Your post is so right. If you don’t have those opening scenes right, people aren’t going to want to read what happens next.
this advice may not apply to all openings equally. I agree that there should be a balance of bio and scene setting as well as internal and external conflict, but whatever it is you have to ask yourself, as a writer, does my opening present a mystery
the nature of which I want to discover?
I totally agree. I have read novels by very popular writers, who spend pages and pages of boring descriptions about character’s family or similar. Is very difficult to just get the right balance. But, as a reader too, I love to find a book which grips my attention from the very first sentence!