Ignore the Experts
In beginning work on a new project, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to opening scenes. Have you ever attended a session at a writer’s conference where a panel of professionals critiques first pages from works in progress from members of the audience? More times than I care to count, I’ve witnessed the Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, who host a PITCHAPALOOZA where writers volunteer to pitch their story. I’ve heard some wonderful opening scenes cut to shreds by these so-called book doctors. As I’ve said before, when you’ve polished your novel as much as possible, find a beta reader or editor you trust to offer constructive criticism. Don’t let some self-proclaimed know-it-all convince you your work isn’t good enough based on a few opening paragraphs.
Give Your First Sentence a Break
That’s not to say your opening doesn’t need to be damn good. Contrary to what you may have been told, your first sentence does NOT need to be the be-all and end-all. But you only get one chance with your reader, so make it count. When you’re shopping for books, how far will you read before you decide to make the purchase? Surely more than a sentence. A paragraph, maybe two? The whole page if you like what you’re reading. Imagine your reader either sampling books at Barnes and Noble or clicking Look Inside on Amazon. There are a lot of books vying for their attention. You must convince them that yours is worth their hard-earned money.
I know what you’re thinking. You buy books based on reviews or recommendations from friends. And I do too, to a certain extent. But I always download the sample before I click buy, because my tastes aren’t always the same as my friends or other reviewers.
Three Ingredients to a Captivating Beginning
1) An intriguing character
2) Enough description to bring the reader into your world
You don’t need to blow up the White House, but your action must be compelling. A woman returning home after several decades to discover secrets in the attic. Two unlikely characters are thrown into a challenging situation. A female veterinarian meets the cowboy of her dreams when his horse is injured on a trail ride. Whatever plot line you choose, bait your hook with a fat juicy worm. Once they’ve taken that bait, set your hook and reel them in as fast as you can.
Opening pages are not the place for big chunks of backstory and long lingering sentences of description. You’ll have time for all that later. If you spend too much time on your opening, you’ll never finish your first chapter, let alone the book. By the end of your first draft, you’ll have a different perspective on your opening scene. Once you’ve worked out what happens in the subsequent three-hundred plus pages of the book, you’ll be able to add real depth to your opening scene.
What are some of your favorite opening scenes from novels?