Monday, July 2, 2012

17 tips for starting a story

We all know that if we don't catch a reader's attention in the first few pages (in some cases, only the first page!), we've lost them - they'll move on to another book. And a great first chapter won't keep them reading if the second chapter gets boring. 

Here's a checklist I've compiled to help make the start of the story interesting enough to keep readers hooked (hopefully). This is the third of five checklists, starting with 38 ways to check for character life signs and 21 ways to make your plot more compelling.

Only one of the 17 items of my checklist refers to a specific location in the beginning of a novel: the first page. The rest of the items might refer to the first page, the first scene, the first chapter, or several first chapters (since chapter length and number of pages used to set everything up can be extremely arbitrary). 
Some genres have more defined "rules" for starting a story. For this reason, I am prefacing this checklist with this excellent advice from Larry Brooks @ StoryFix: 
Go to a bookstore.  Pick up novels that are by known authors in your chosen genre. Read the opening chapter of as many of them as you can.  Just the opening scene. Notice how and why it works.  Or if it doesn't work for you – if you aren’t hooked – try to determine why. [My method is download free chapters to my Kindle app]. 
1. Is your opening scene/chapter about what the story as a whole is about -  a microcosm of the story? (without  telling us too much about it) (source: Larry Brooks @ Storyfix)
2. Does your first page include a compelling or striking opening image that raises a question? Make your reader ask "why is she doing that?" or "what's going to happen next?"  The teenage protagonist in Across the Universe (by Beth Revis)  has to watch her mother and father strip down and submit to being cryogenicly frozen, and then decide whether she'll  go through the same process. Why are they being frozen? Why does her father insist that her mother goes first?
3. Does your opening show your character doing something  particular or specific to him/her, that defines what she wants, or defines her character or need? The more compelling or striking the character's actions, the better. She/he should not just  be thinking or reacting to others.  In The Golden Compass (by Philip Pullman), on the first page Lyra is shown sneaking into a room forbidden to anyone except Scholars, making keen observations about the room and giving snappy responses to her nervous daemon's concerns which give us an immediate sense of her headstrong character.
4. Does your opening include an inciting incident, the event that sets in motion the central conflict of the story? (It should also at least hint at the stakes involved, though these may not come into play in the opening). Sometimes the inciting incident happens right away, sometimes it doesn't happen until the end of the first chapter or several chapters in. In The Help (by Kathryn Stockett) the inciting incident is when the antagonist, Miss Hilly, insists that her friend put in a separate bathroom for "the help" - it's not acceptable for a black maid to share a white family's toilet. Overhearing this plan makes the protagonist, Skeeter, realize that something should be done about this prejudiced attitude.
5. Does your opening immerse the reader in one or more of the three cornerstones of story – concept, character, and theme?  Concept is a what if scenario: what if teenagers were forced to kill each other off in front of a televised audience? The first scene in The Hunger Games shows the set up for the picking  of teenagers. Character: the first scene in Gone With the Wind shows Scarlett O'Hara as the center of attention. Theme: in Lord of the Rings, the first chapter shows how the Ring, with its great power, has a pernicious influence on its bearer at his birthday party. (source: Larry Brooks @ Storyfix)
6. Does your opening include your protagonist  with other characters - showing how he interacts with the world? Two or three is ideal: not too many other characters or the reader will be overwhelmed.  (source: Anne R. Allen)
7. Did you give your protagonist strong emotions in the opening scene, emotions the reader can identify with? The reader doesn't have to identify with the situation, but must identify with the emotion (source: Anne R. Allen). One caveat: don't start with your protagonist whining. In general, starting with your character in a negative mood is less likely to win the reader over (source: Elena Solodow). 
8. Does your story start in the process of something: taking a risk, something going wrong, a secret being revealed, a desire being denied?  There is a sense that something is about to happen and usually that it won't be good for somebody. (source: Janice Hardy). 
9. Does your opening include voice and some unique phrasing and avoid cliches at all cost? Example of a cliche: "His hands were like ice."  Example of unique phrasing: "His hands felt cold as the dead goldfish Mom kept in our freezer."  This works because it asks questions and its unique (Elena Solodow)
10. Does your story start with something non-typical? Waking up in the morning in your bedroom is typical (source: Elena Solodow). Waking up on the deck of a ship: better, because it asks the question - why is he/she sleeping on the deck of a ship?  But even better, find a more unique thing for them to be doing than just waking up. Solodow's post also includes a helpful list of other things NOT to include in your opening, and over-used openings.
11. Did you start at the moment closest to the beginning of the main conflict of your story as possible? (Valerie Kemp)
12. Does your opening reflect the tone of your novel? e.g. lighthearted, humorous, sarcastic, dark, suspenseful, adventuresome, etc? Identify the sensation and experience you want to evoke in your reader and then make sure you evoke it. (source: Alexandra Sokoloff)
13. Does your opening include all the senses?  Get the reader to smell the coffee as if they are actually there. (Source: The Blood Red Pencil blog). 
14. Does your opening include the main character(s) with their personal stakes, hopes and fears, immediate wants and as yet undiscovered needs? These are are included in much more detail in my checklist for characters, but this bears repeating: do you state what your main character wants within the first few pages and what's standing in their way?
15. Does your story's first act (not necessarily the opening, but definitely the first third of the novel) introduce the antagonist and other important characters which can include the mentor, the sidekick, the mirror, the foil, the love interest? 
16. Does each bit of information you reveal in your opening relate to the other parts, rather than dishing out disparate facts, emotions or actions? No matter how interesting and relevant the information you are giving the reader, if it doesn't flow, or connect, if won't hold the reader's attention (source: Moody Writing). 
17. Is it interesting? (The three word question that sums up all the rest!). 

And a late addition, thank you Laura Marcella for reminding me:

18. Does opening include foreshadowing? 


  1. That is such a comprehensive list! Wow. Thank you.

  2. Lots of good ideas in this list!

  3. Wow! Another AMAZING craft post! Awesome stuff, Margo. You definitely had me thinking about my opening...

  4. That is a LOT to remember for one little opening. LOL. Thanks for this great list!

  5. This is a fantastic list and not just because my name appears in it.


  6. Great list

    The importance of the hook needs to be beat into every writer's head.

    I have almost 600 books on my Kindle. If the first dozen pages doesn't have me sold...I'm off to the next novel.

  7. Great list! I'm printing this one!

  8. Yes - the all important opening to grab the reader's attention - so so true! Thanks for this list lovely Margo! I sort of think Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really knew these rules - the prologue suckered me in only to slap me with a really really awful first chapter but by then I was sold! Take care

  9. Wow, what a great list. Thanks so much:-) We have no excuses now for ideas!

  10. I love it when you do these compilation posts with other resources. And I love the idea of downloading the first chapters from Amazon. It forces you to be more honest with yourself than if you read the first chapter of a book you've bought without reading the chapter first. If you aren't willing to buy the book based on the first chapter, then something must be wrong.

  11. Solid gold list. The opening scene in Across the Universe was one of the most compelling I've read in a long time. Big WOW factor there.

  12. Hi Margo, I wondered if you would kindly feature my ebook free promotion giveaway, two children's books on your blog? for the 6th to 9th and the 12th to the 13th July please? Don't worry if that is a problem. Kind regards, Carole.

  13. Awesome compilation post, Margo! I'll definitely come back to read this when I start seriously plotting my next WIP (any day now...).

  14. So, nice I think I should include it on the links lost in my drafts. Hope your summer is going well.

  15. Great tips Margo! Number 11 is always the one I have to think about when I start revisions. Sometimes I start too early, forgetting to trust that the reader will understand. :)

  16. Awesome list, Margo! Must tweet. :) #5 is especially interesting. I like the examples you give because it shows how the opening is super important to set up, and maybe even foreshadow, the rest of the story.

  17. Great list!
    Extremely useful for someone in revision land like myself.

    Thank you :)

  18. I heart would teach a great class!

  19. These tips are very interesting. I think it is a good thing for people to learn, I will share with you about this and my loved ones.


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