If you’ve entrenched yourself in the writing world, you’ve no doubt heard what doesn’t make for a good book opening.
These tips range from ditching prologues to the ultimate pressure inducing advice: the opening sentence/paragraph/page must automatically engage the reader or they won’t read on.
While this advice is enough to make you consider taking up a different career, ultimately, you should open your book with whatever is right for the story.
I did this for my debut, Blackbirch: The Beginning. It starts with another of those clichéd no-nos: a character having a dream. Dreams form a running theme throughout the book and serve as both a comfort and a warning for my main character. They also connect him to another important character who can only reach him through dreams.
Using this opening suits the story and sets the surreal tone, and (to my knowledge) no one who’s read it—including agents and publishers when I was querying—complained that it starts this way. A dream opening matches the book, and if your book’s opening is right for the story, it shouldn’t be ditched because it comes in the form of a supposed “don’t”.
As for making the most of your book’s opening in other ways, these tips might help…
Tips For Book Openings
Orientate The Reader
Unless you’re really going for something out there, the reader should at least know where and when the book is taking place. It could be on an alien planet 1,000 years in the future, or back in the 90s on the first day of high school. Just let the reader know where they are and when.
Introduce The Main Character
Where and when works better when readers also know with whom. Try to make the first character they meet your MC. If that doesn’t work for the first chapter, introduce the MC as soon as possible, and do something that will endear them to the reader.
There’s the tried and true “Save the Cat” method where the MC does something likable (such as save a cat) and the whole point of that is to make the reader sympathetic/relate to your MC. The earlier you do this in your book, the better. You want the reader and your MC to form a connection that will take them from the first page to the last.
Go For A Basic Backstory
Another of those “don’ts” you might have heard is weighing your opening down with backstory. Trouble is, sometimes the only way to get the reader to relate to your MC, or know where or when they are, is through backstory.
If you need it in your opening chapter, limit it to the very basics, such as a throwaway line about the MC being an orphan, or the alien planet’s air being easier to move through than the training simulations they used back home.
Get Into The Action
This is not a suggestion to start your book with an explosion, but at a place where something is happening.
It could be the smash of a coffee mug as the final bingo number is called out at the senior center game night or the thud of a murderer pushing a body into a freshly dug grave. The point of this tip is to open your book with a catalyst that changes things.
Don’t start with your MC getting out of bed, making breakfast, eating breakfast, getting dressed, and heading out to start their day. They could be heading out the door to a morning where the bank they work in gets robbed, or a minor car accident on the commute introduces them to the love of their life. Start at the robbery or the car-crunching fender bender. Get into the action ASAP.
As I mentioned earlier, Blackbirch: The Beginning opens with a dream. Not just a dream, but a nightmare about a monster/shadow haunting a forest where the MC must use magic called from his veins to protect himself. Not only does this opening pave the way for reveals in the rest of the book, but it gives the reader the expectation that this will be a supernatural tale with frequent dreams. Use the first chapters of your story to set the expectations for what’s coming, and help your readers out.
And there you have some tips for your book opening! If you stick to what suits the story, establish where, when, who the MC is, sprinkle in some backstory, kick off with action, and set expectations, your opening should make anyone want to keep reading.
— K.M. Allan