I can tell within the first page of a book if I’m going to like it or if I’m going to struggle through or put it down entirely. Yep. All it takes is that first page. I suspect I’m not alone either. First impressions definitely matter in books. That’s why it’s essential to get it right, right from the start.
Maybe I’m assuming too much, but I think as writers we know this. We know we have to nail it from the start. The first page, the first paragraph, and yes, that first sentence has to draw the reader in and make them want to stay for more.
So there I was the other day, clawing my way through the first draft of my next novel, Fool for Love, when I decided that what I really needed to get into the story was to reread the first book in the series, Our Little Secrets. I whipped out my Kindle and pulled it up and didn’t get any further than the very first paragaph:
“Charlotte was out of her seat before the train came to a full stop. She’d had it with the beast. Thirty-two days of nearly constant travel was more than enough for a woman on her own to withstand. Especially in present company.”
I paused and read it again. There are a lot of things I like about that paragraph. I like the fact that it has motion from the first sentence. I like the fact that I slid some backstory in without harping on it. But I also tend to second-guess everything I write.
That’s when my quest began. I started flipping through every book I had stored on my Kindle, reading the first paragraph. Here are some of my favorites:
“The madam of an infamous brothel has to handle many types of difficult men, Coral Smythe reflected. Drunken lords, arrogant merchants, callow youths teetering on the crumbling edges of their own personal disasters, and just too many men with more money in their pockets than sense. But few men were as irritating, provoking, vexing, and aggravating as a puritanical naval captain.” – The Ice Princess by Elizabeth Hoyt
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.” – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
“Monique gripped the pen so tightly, her knuckles turned white and her fingers grew cold. She hated starting this new beginning the same old way – with a lie.” – Fairyproof by Constance Phillips
And of course the ultimate classic,
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Then there were a few that were, unfortunately, cringe-worthy. I won’t quote them here as many (but by no means all) of them were by fellow self-published authors. We’re talking beginnings with clumps of backstory shoved up front, vague dialog that assume I already know what’s going on, and heavy-handed descriptions. It’s as easy to get a beginning wrong as it is to get it right.
I happen to be a big fan of in medias res openings: starting the story in the beginning of the action. As the train stops, for example, or in the middle of a heist or a spaceship crash. So I was puzzled when I went back to the beginning of my current work and found that it starts with a description of some truly miserable weather … that happens to be a reflection of the heroine’s world that has just fallen apart.
Is rain streaking a window really a beginning that pops? Well that remains to be seen. I have miles to go before I sleep on this one. But it could be. A teardrop could be as powerful of an opener as a shout. It all depends where it goes from there.
The thing that I like so much about the opening paragraph of The Hunger Games is how well it sets the mood for the rest of the book. It’s packed full of information while containing one simple, loaded action: reaching out. Anyone who has read the book knows that Collins builds an extensive world with its own set of rules. They also know that much of the book is non-stop action. But the beginning is the calm before the storm.
Creating an opening that pops is not so much about starting at the height of the action – although it could be – but beginning with the characters fully intact. The plot doesn’t necessarily need to begin in medias res, but the characters absolutely must. I think what turns me off about some of the openings I’ve read is that rather than showing the book’s hero interacting with their inner and outer world, too much time is spent building the character.
If an author begins by explaining something to me they lose me. The key to grabbing my attention is to drop hints, leave clues about people and worlds that are already fully formed, that make me want to piece the rest together. But as an author, I’m always tempted by the desire to tip my hand sooner than is good for me. I’ve had to learn that intrigue is easier to generate when you hold back as much as you give.
The best openings are the ones that make you turn the page. They are the ones that authors sneak into the back of their book as a teaser for the next book in the series. You know, the ones that make you go, “Wait, I have to wait how long for that book to come out?” They ask questions, set the stage, and then dangle a carrot in front of you to leave you panting for more. But you can only write them if you, as the author, already know what’s on the other side of the curtain in the promised land.
So what are some of your favorite openings? What books had you hooked from the very first page?