All of us writers are, first and foremost, readers. We've all wandered around a bookstore, searching for our next favorite read. Usually the cover draws me first (not surprising) and then the jacket copy. Okay, I'm intrigued. But unless I know the author's work already (or I've seen incredible reviews online), that's probably not enough to make me buy it right then and there. So what do I do? I open the book and flip to the first page. I'll bet you do, too. It all depends on whether we like what we see in those first paragraphs.
Agents and editors do the same thing when they read our pitches. We have a matter of seconds to make an impression. So how do we grab an agent's or a reader's attention? What makes the difference between a Yes, I want to see more! and a Nope, better luck elsewhere?
What makes for a good beginning?
This is one I've struggled with since I first started writing. Who hasn't stared at that blank page or cursor and wondered, What the heck am I doing? Thank goodness you don't have to start your first draft with the ideal opening lines. Chapter one is probably the most revised part of any manuscript. But by your final polished revision, those first paragraphs better be perfect. No pressure or anything.
I for one have always found the third act (i.e. the big climax) so much easier. I'm still trying to find that elusive combination of elements that will instantly draw in a reader from the first page. But I have realized that I can't count on readers sticking with me until the fireworks start. There are just too many books to choose from, and too little time.
You have to hook your reader.
"It's a simple something that asks a question the reader must now yearn to answer, or causes an itch that demands to be scratched." - Larry Brooks
It must occur in the first 20 pages or so, but earlier is better. In YA especially--a very crowded market, as we all know--the safer bet is to hook your reader from page 1. The hook doesn't even have to relate directly to the story arc. It is not necessarily your inciting incident! It just has to be, as Larry Brooks tells us, "visceral, sensual, emotionally resonant ... a promise of an intense and rewarding experience ahead."
The words "question" and "promise" are key. It's no coincidence that these are also terms that define suspense. As legendary suspense writer Lee Child advises, "we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer." That's exactly what you do with the hook, regardless of genre. The hook happens before the reader is truly invested in the characters, and yet, as Lee Child says--the questions nag. It's human nature to want to know the answer. Those questions keep us reading.
The perfect recipe
Your official "hook" doesn't have to be on the first page. But those opening paragraphs still have to pop. They need something--think buzz words like questions, promises, stakes--that keep us reading. So, what combination of character, conflict and setting will bake up into the ideal opening lines?
Whenever I ponder this question, two books always come to mind. They're from very different genres, but both grabbed me from the first page.
The first is Graceling, a YA fantasy novel by Kristin Cashore. One of my favorites.
In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind. One that had so far proven correct, as Oll's maps tended to do. Katsa ran her hand along the cold walls and counted doors and passageways as she went. Turning when it was time to turn; stopping finally before an opening that should contain a stairway leading down. She crouched and felt forward with her hands. There was a stone step, damp and slippery with moss, and another one below it. This was Oll's staircase, then. She only hoped that when he and Giddon followed her with their torches, they would see the moss slime, tread carefully, and not waken the dead by clattering headlong down the steps. - Kristin Cashore, 'Graceling'
Wow, so many promises and questions here! We know Katsa has a mission--a secret mission. And a dangerous one too, otherwise why would she be sneaking around through dark slimy dungeons? What's her mission? Who is Oll? Who is this Katsa who's brave and strong enough to lead the mission, whose mind works so carefully? We have characters, the beginning of setting. Definite conflict and stakes too, though implied. And, as we find out, this is all still part of the setup of the book, and not an actual inciting incident (which comes later, after we're truly invested). Pretty close to perfect. I'm hooked.
Now, consider the radically different opening to the classic Swann's Way. I still remember reading the first paragraph in the bookstore and thinking, this is going to be incredible. And it happened even before Proust's indelible image of a madeline dipped into lime blossom tea.
For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’m going to sleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book .... - Marcel Proust, 'Swann's Way'
I'm certainly not saying any of us should try to emulate Proust. It takes a true master to start out this way: vague, dreamy, lyrically rambling. No named character or specific setting. Yet it captures both a universal human experience (the confused state between waking and sleep) and the actual sensation of reading an immersive book (the feeling that you're in it, that the book itself is more real than your life). Look at that deceptively simple first sentence though--it definitely makes me ask questions! Why did he go to bed early? What's different now?
What about prologues?
Prologues are tempting. What better way to hook a reader than to give him a glimpse of some plot-related excitement? You might hint at the climactic scene. Or show the reader something cool that happened before your story takes place. What could go wrong?
Sometimes, a prologue works. Take for example the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. (Yes, I know it was called "Chapter One," but it could just as easily have been called "Prologue.") It sets up the basic conflict of the entire series: baby Harry's delivery to the Dursleys after Voldemort tried (and failed) to kill him. It's an essential part of the setup itself.
But prologues should come with a warning label (for fellow writers, anyway). Because temptation can be dangerous.
I've fallen for it. I admit it. With my first manuscript, I realized the beginning was a little slow. Alright, really slow. So I tacked a prologue onto that sucker. I promise something exciting will eventually happen in this story! C'mon guys, just stick with me! Oh boy. My sincere apologies to the agents who saw that. A prologue should not be used as a crutch to hold up a boring first act! It's too easy. It's lazy. And it's rarely effective.
Where to start
It's true that a great novel requires some patience from a reader. We all have a favorite book that starts out slow, and repays that commitment (think Outlander). But unfortunately, unknown authors can't count on an agent's or reader's patience to get us through. We need a strong beginning to set the tone for everything that's to come.
Your opening pages--even your opening sentences--should ask questions. They should make intriguing promises. And then, they must make the reader wait (and keep turning those pages) to find out the answers. A lackluster first page makes a book too easy to set aside. Don't let your reader get up from the table before your story has even started!
And just because I can't resist, here's another gorgeous picture of breakfast. Metaphors, etc.