One of the hardest parts of writing a killer novel, is the opening. It’s the start of your story, the first glimpse into the author’s style, voice, and what your novel is going to be about. More often than not, an agent is going to read no further than the first five pages of any manuscript if it isn’t capturing their attention. So, here are four things you must include in your opening.
- Where are we? What is the setting? This can be a city, state, a room, etc. A good book will not only tell the reader where the story is taking place, but will make them feel it. Keep in mind when you’re writing, setting can be more than a physical place, it can be a feeling.
- When is it? Does the novel take place in present day, the future, the past? You can give the year, but you don’t need to be that specific. Just the mention of cars, the use of slang, the style of clothing, can all be indicators of time and place. Also, make it clear to the reader what time of day it is and what time of year. Is it summer? Is it hot? Is it autumn? Are brittle leaves rustling on the bare limbs of trees? You get the picture.
- Who? Whose head are we in? Which character’s point of view? Or whose eyes are we experiencing the scene in? Also, a lot of times writers forget to tell the reader how old their characters are. This is important, so don’t forget. You can hint, but make sure the hints are very clear and not too vague.
- Goal. The writer must either give the reader a hint of foreshadowing of the conflict that is coming, or give the reader an idea of what the character’s goal is. Maybe a young girl is walking along a vacant street at night. She’s alone. A man stops his car next to her on the street. He smiles wickedly at her. His eyes glint in the lamplight, as he asks her for a ride. The girl’s pace quickens as she ignores him and keeps walking, but he coasts his car next to her, leaning out of the window. Okay, this is a pretty lame example, but if that were part of the beginning of your novel, the reader would get the idea that something bad was going to happen to the poor girl. Or maybe (to use an example for an old blog post, Characters and Goals ) the poor pimply faced nerd announces to his friends at Math Club that he wants to ask Jenny to the prom, and they all scoff at him.
All of these things are basic, but so important in engaging the reader. Not only should all four of these things be in the first page or two of your novel, a writer should be answering all four questions at the start of every chapter. One of the things that can easily become gray, is time frame. In each chapter, the reader should be clear of how much time has elapsed since the previous scene. If it’s a new character or Point of View, the writer will have to completely introduce them. If the character has already been introduced into the story, then the writer just needs to make sure it is clear whose POV it is.
So, in short, don’t forget: Setting or the Where?, Time frame or the When?, Point of View or the Who?, and What is happening or their Goal. Four simple things that will make the opening of your novel and chapters better.