Let’s face it: when you submit your writing in the hope that it will get published, every word matters. You wouldn’t allow yourself to get sloppy after page 37, assuming the editor can handle choppy prose or “inventive” spelling if it went that far. But what you may not realize is that the beginning of your manuscript is with much the most important part because it will encourage the editor to keep reading gold to put everything aside. After all, you may have created an admirable middle or impressive ending, but no one will get there if your beginning is mediocre.
Despite more books being published than ever, the publishing world is more competitive than ever. Agents and publishers are inundated with staggering piles of unsolicited manuscripts, and it is physically impossible for them to break through, in their entirety, each one. The beginning is the only chance you have to make the right impression.
Face it, unless you have to, how often do you you Pushing a book when you’re not overwhelmed at the beginning?
Which brings us to some rules for great starts. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but often those exceptions are only successful in the hands of seasoned writers or those with multi-book offerings. For the typical writer, it pays to pay attention to what today’s market demands.
Make your start shine:
~ Get started with the action.
“Action” does not necessarily mean a fist fight or an explosion or a nosedive gone wrong. Action means starting your book or story in an attractive place, with a scene, with something at stake for your characters. Look closely and you may find that you have pages of material that shouldn’t start your book. They can fill in some important blanks for readers, but those backstory pages can be safely moved to a place in chapter two or later (or, better yet, spread out in smaller chunks throughout the work. ).
Don’t start your story with the story, start with a fascinating now that grabs the reader by the neck and does not let him turn away.
~ Never put direct dialogue or descriptions in your first few lines.
To clarify: the dialogue is fine in the first scene. In fact, many experts agree that first scenes without dialogue fall short of their potential. This is because the most engaging reading material involves tension between people, and usually people are talking to each other. However, if your first lines are dialogues, it is impossible for the reader to understand who is speaking from the beginning (or why he / she as a reader should care), as the reader has not had any history with the characters.
Similarly, the description from the beginning will not draw the reader into the story. Not because it confuses or disorients them like dialogue does, but because static description can be boring and slow and doesn’t tell the reader anything about the story (the action, the story problem) itself. If the setting is in any way crucial to your first scene and you feel like you should start there, limit it to a sentence or two and then get right into the gist of the scene. There will be time for the description later.
~ Make sure your writing is accessible and engaging.
Your beginning is not the place to try some experimental stylistic device or stump your readers with a puzzle. You want your readers to think, but you don’t want them to feel stupid or say, “Huh?” If your reader is immediately frustrated and confused, you can bet they won’t sign up for 300 more pages.
~ Prepare the promise of the story.
You’ve seen shoppers in bookstores. They scan the flap of the book for a description and, if that intrigues them, they turn to page one and flick through the opening to see if it is the kind of book they want to read. Make it clear right away what kind of story yours is. Don’t start with a knock-knock joke if it’s an essay on a serious topic. (Although there is room for humor in almost any piece, it should be woven appropriately into the work and not nailed in the wrong place. But that’s a topic for another article.) You are planning to end on page three. You get the idea.
Readers like surprise, they don’t like feeling disoriented.
~ Always remember that boredom kills readers.
If you are bored when you write the opening, if you fall asleep at your desk when you reread it, and if trusted readers can’t stop yawning when they review it, which makes you think that strangers you send it to will be captivated by that? Readers have more options than ever (in print and online), and they won’t stick with you for more than a few dozen words if they’re bored. Make sure your beginning sticks your readers to the page, wide awake and eager for more.