Your story starts at the beginning, and beginnings are so important. I often hear from writers that the book really gets going a few chapters in. So why don’t you start the story there?
In this era of micro attention spans, most readers are not going to wait around for two or three boring chapters in order to finally find something interesting and engage them in your story.
So getting the beginning right is one of the most important things you can do.
Where should your story begin?
The beginning of your novel may take you longer to write than the whole rest of your book. That’s because there is a lot that needs to happen in the beginning of your book to hook your readers and keep them turning those pages.
The biggest problem I see with stories is that they don’t start in the right place. A great question to ask yourself is: What is the day everything changed for my hero? In a romance it’s often the day the hero and heroine meet. In a suspense it can be when the hero walks into the wrong place at the wrong time. It has to be a big enough change that the path the hero was on has taken a turn. Life as she knows it will no longer be the same.
Too many times we have way too much backstory. We do need to see the hero in her ordinary world so we can see how the change rocks her world. But don’t spend too much time there. Get us into the action right away.
Writing the First Lines
Once you know where to start the story, you have to write down some great first lines. First lines set the tone and create an expectation for your reader as to what’s going to come next. These can take longer to craft than many of your chapters. There’s more art than science to it.
Look at some of your favorite books and just read the first line. There is something unusual, ominous, funny, or any other adjective that makes you want to keep reading. As writers, our tendency is to set the stage for what’s going on. That’s not as interesting. Be interesting first, then back into setting the stage as you need to.
You’ll know you have a first great line when it sets the tone for the book and is intriguing enough to make us want to keep reading.
Introduce the Hero
So we know where the story needs to start. We have a fabulous set of first lines to draw our reader in. Now we need to introduce our hero to our reader. We don’t have very many words to get our reader emotionally involved in the life of our hero.
We’ve already mentioned seeing her briefly in her everyday world. But don’t waste this opportunity to show us what her deep longing is for. This is ultimately what readers are going to be hoping she gets at the end of the story and the ups and downs of the story will be measured by how close or far she is to getting the longing of her heart.
The hero also has to have an external story goal. This is the goal we can see such as getting a promotion, landing a big client, solving a mystery, getting justice. This is usually different than the internal goal, but it is more obvious if the hero is getting close or farther from this goal because it is visible and concrete.
Heroes have to have goals. The better we can understand what the hero wants (and what they don’t want), the more we’ll be able to identify with them and the more we’ll be cheering them on as we read.
We also need to actually like her. If we are going to follow her through the pages of the story, we need to want to spend time with her. We need to see something in the first chapter that makes her sympathetic or heroic. If readers don’t like your hero, they won’t care what happens to her. Does she read to her blind grandmother? Does she rescue puppies? Does she risk something (reputation, possessions, self) for someone else? Use these things in her ordinary world so that we like her, we’re rooting for her, and we’re as shocked as she is when her world changes.
Your hero should be likeable, but not perfect. They need to have flaws just like every human being. And those flaws are going to challenge them to change throughout your story.
Get your novel off to the right start and the rest will flow much more easily.
First Chapter Checklist
Use this checklist when writing the first chapter of your story or reviewing the first chapter of your story to make sure you’ve included all the most important elements of a great beginning to your novel.
- Does my story begin the day everything changes for the hero?
- Is my first line indicative of the tone for the whole story and intriguing enough to pique the interest of the reader?
- Is there a glimpse of hope of what the hero’s deep, internal longing is?
- Do we have a clear sense of what the hero’s external story goal is?
- Is the hero likeable, admirable, sympathetic, brave?
- Does the hero have a flaw that they will have to overcome in the course of the story?