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How to Begin Your Book

ONCE UPON A TIME…
Standard opening for folk tales

FOUR SCORE AND SEVEN YEARS AGO…
—The Gettysburg Address,Abraham Lincoln

A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY…
—Star Wars, George Lucas

THE CIRCUS ARRIVES WITHOUT WARNING.
—The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

THE EARLY SUMMER SKY WAS THE COLOR OF CAT VOMIT.
—Uglies,Scott Westerfeld

Most of these openings are easily recognizable, and all of them do what their designed to do: pull the reader in.

The latter is one of my favorites. An old co-worker of mine droned on and on about how good this series was, and eventually I caved and bought a copy of Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. When I started this book, I was blind and had no idea what to expect. I opened it the Chapter One and reread the first line about a dozen times. Cat vomit? It seemed a pretty crass way to introduce a book series, yet I was intrigued.

THE FIRST LINE HOOKED ME.

But it was that first line that left me feeling insignificant and inadequate in my own writing. I didn’t have a great hook. The chapter continues to build instantly captivating the reader, and the further I read, the more confirmation I received that my book was lacking.

While writing this post I painfully opened the first draft of Jamyria: The Entering saved to my computerto better explain my point (note: the very first draft was handwritten). And my opening line in the first draft was…

I was early.

Yep. That’s it. Three words that do absolutely nothing to my plot. The second draft expanded slightly:

It was without a doubt the first time Margo Grisby had ever been early since she began high school.

Better, but still basically the same (and, yes, I did switch from first to third person several times during my edits). What I shamefully realized after reading page one of Uglies was that I had no idea how to create a hook like Scott Westerfeld had. Even when I wrote the first draft, I recall struggling to begin my story. So I plopped my character on a bus bench and simply started writing.

When it came time for Draft 3, I skipped the first chapter altogether, and surprisingly found a shift in my writing. By ignoring that “hook” I was able to focus on my writing and improve my skills. This giddiness was short-lived though; I inevitably had to return to Chapter One.

Here are a few things I learned along the way:

SET THE MOOD.

The opening of my first few drafts was warm and happy and made you feel like you were in a peaceful, better place. Your tummy filled with butterflies when you read it. Which is great, but not when you’re writing a fantasy/adventure/action book!

The first line is your hook, but the first page is the set up for the entire book. This page is one of the most important ones because it will either keep your reader turning pages or have them place your book back on the store shelf and move on.

START IN THE MIDDLE.

Not literally. But don’t start in a cliche way — i.e., an alarm clock going off and your character beginning his day. Also avoid beginning your book with a mundane act, such as, I don’t know, your character sitting on a bench waiting for the bus to arrive.

Start in the middle of something that pertains to the story.

Is your character a cop? Start your book with him investigating a crime that will tie into the plot. Your character could be a hopeless romantic. Begin with them head over heels for their boyfriend who dumps them with no warning. By setting the story up like this, your reader is intrigued and constantly thinks “now what?” and “what happens next?”

REFERENCE OTHER OPENINGS.

By “reference” I don’t mean copy, but reading other books can help inspire you to write your own successful opening. Uglies was my wake up call. Try reading the first pages of some of your favorite books, and then go back and reread yours. Can it compare to your favorite books? Does it hook you?

Turn on a movie. Pay attention to the details of the opening scene. What element makes you want to watch more?

Let’s take a look at Heroes, Season 1, Episode 1: Genesis:

The earth spins and is overshadowed: an eclipse. The ring of the eclipse reflects in protagonist Peter Petrelli’s eyes. He stares into the distance with a longing, almost saddened, look as the camera pans out to reveal him standing on the edge of a building. He slowly spreads his arms and steps off into space. Falling. Flying. Dreaming.

Bam. First twenty seconds and the writers already have you hooked. Although a television series differs from a book, you can apply the same principals to your writing.


I hope this helps your get past the first line jitters. Please let me know if this works or comment below to offer more advice for fellow writers.

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