Crafting an effective opening

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We do an ongoing series of first-page critiques here at TKZ and all too often the same set of issues come up when analysing these draft first pages. I thought today’s post could provide a summary of some of the key elements needed to provide a really effective opening to your novel. Most of these elements apply not just to the first page per se but to those all important first few chapters which (lets face it) are the critical ones in terms of enticing and keeping reader’s interest.

On my list, the following are crucial to providing an effective opening:

  • An initial ‘disruptive’ event that changes everything for the main protagonist: This event doesn’t need to be on the scale of a nuclear accident but it does need to profoundly affect the path the main character must take. It helps set up the plot, motivation and tension for the first chapters of the book.
  • Act/show first explain later: Often there’s way too much explanation and back story in the first few pages, which often serves to diminish tension and momentum. It’s better to show/have the protagonist act first and then wait to provide the reader with explanation. The only caution I would add is to beware of introducing actions that make no sense or which are completely unexplained to the reader which leads toโ€ฆ
  • Ground the book: It’s important to make sure the reader has a solid grounding in terms of the ‘world’ you have created. This means a solid foundation of time, place, character and voice. The reader shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out what’s happening in the first few pages. An intrigued but well-grounded reader wants to read on, a disorientated reader may just put the book down.
  • Establish a strong, appropriate POV and ‘voice’ for the genre of book you are writing: Occasionally in our first page critiques we’ve found it hard to reconcile the ‘voice’ with the subject matter or tone of the book. Sometimes a POV ‘voice’ might sound like  ‘YA’ but the book doesn’t appears to be a young adult book. This is especially tricky when using a first person POV – as the ‘voice’ is the only point of reference for the reader.
  • Edit, spell check and edit again: We’ve seen some first pages that still contain many grammatical and spelling mistakes. Those first few pages have to be as perfect as possible so  make sure all errors are corrected. 

I usually spend a considerable chunk of time getting the first line, page and chapters more or less right before I move on with drafting the rest of the book. To me the first few chapters provide the all important ‘voice’ and guidepost to the world I’ve created. But it’s important also not get too bogged down in perfecting the first line/page/chapter. I’ve seen too many people write, re-write and re-write the first three chapters only to never move on and actually finish that all important first draft of the novel. 

So how do you strike the balance? 
What makes an effective opening for you and what items would you add to my list?

14 thoughts on “Crafting an effective opening

  1. Excellent tips for an effective opening, Clare! I also advise my clients to start the book out in the point of view of the main character, as readers start to identify with and bond with the first character they’re introduced to, and will feel cheated if it turns out to be a minor character.

    I also advise my clients not to spend too much time perfecting their opening until they’ve written all or most of the book, as the opening should set the tone and portend what comes next, which often changes in the course of writing the novel.

    Great tips! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Jodie – great addition to the list. Starting off with the main character’s POV is important
      I fear I spend too much time on the opening but I do go on and write the rest and then, invariably, change the opening anyway!

  2. Excellent summary, Clare. Thanks. This might be covered under “voice,” but it seems that mood should be set right away. Is the story light-hearted or somber? Serious or comedic?

    I love first lines that artfully reveal something profound about the main character or about the whole story. How important is that first line?

    • I do think the first line is important but it’s all part of the first page so I try not to get too hung up on it. That first page does need to set the tone and sometimes in our critiques we notice this is where things can get a little confused if the mood and the POV/voice aren’t clear or don’t seem to match the genre.

    • Yes, I tell my clients that the back cover copy and the first page make a kind of “promise” to the reader of things to come, so it’s important to set the overall tone early on so they have a good idea of what they’re in for, and don’t feel cheated later.

  3. Good post. After reading Save the Cat, I’ve started adding a “theme stated” line to my novels. Usually a secondary character will ask the story question or simply state the theme. Recently I saw Gravity with Sandra Bullock. In the beginning, George Clooney says “I can live or die, either way it’s been a helluva ride.” Bullock repeats it at the end. Without that simple line, the movie would have had less impact. I try to employ the same strategy in my novels. And, of course, I remember to save the cat.

    • Ron – that’s really interesting. I don’t tend to think of theme until after I’ve written the first draft – but that’s a good point – especially using a line that can then help tie the whole story together. Thanks!

  4. Clare–
    This is must-reading–a clear, succinct summary of what needs to happen up front. Going back to almost any book that had me at page one demonstrates the truth of what you say. I too find that working however long it takes until I’m confident about the opening is very important to what follows. I spent lots of time refining the opening scene of The Anything Goes Girl, and I’m sure that doing this made the whole novel work better.

    • Thanks Barry! Nothing beats a great opening even if sometimes it feels like you had to beat it into submission to get there!

  5. Thanks for that. How often do we need to hear this? Hmmm. Constantly, I think. Emboss this on wood and nail it to my forehead, and probably I will still forget. But I’m workin’ on it. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. I like to start my books with dialogue. The biggest mistake I see when judging contests is backstory or flashbacks in the first chapter. This kills the pacing. You want to keep the action moving forward and sprinkle in these tidbits about the past. Also try to answer the 5 W’s: Who, What, Why, Where, When. And then give yourself permission to write crap for the entire first draft. You can fix things once they’re on the page. Get started and move forward until you reach the end.

  7. Great tips! I religiously follow James Scott Bell’s advice in Plot & Structure. I’ve even done his chapter two switcheroo, where I gut or delete the first chapter in later revision.

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