It’s no secret. Writing the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of a book is hard. I read a lot of book beginnings, not just because I read a lot of books but because, as a Kindle user with a seemingly endless number of books available at the press of a button, I read a lot of samples. Some of them grab me right away. Others are strong but start slower. Still others don’t appeal to me, so I set them aside.
What are you looking for in a book opening? Here are a few things that I look for:
An interesting main character
I prefer them to be likeable and clever and think for themselves, but sometimes a character who starts out as unlikeable becomes likeable over the course of the book. But what I want is a well-drawn character that I like enough—or am intrigued enough by—to stick with their story for hundreds of pages.
I love Harry Potter right away because, despite the fact that the Dursleys treat him terribly, he still seems like a good person. He’s becoming a good person despite the way they treat him. We get a sense of that right away. We get a sense that he’s destined for so much more than living in the Cupboard Under the Stairs.
I want the writing to grab me immediately. Yasmine Galenorn opens her book “Dragon Wytch” with the following line:
“There was pixie dust in the air.”
It seems deceptively simple, but I kept reading because this opening got me thinking. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What does that mean? What’s going to happen? Are pixies in this world evil, mischievous, or sweet? How will the character react?
A good opening raises a question to which we must read on to find the answer. Charles Dickens opens his famous novel “A Tale of Two Cities” with this infamous line:
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
And we read on because, well, how can it be the best and the worst at the same time? We’re intrigued; we’re hooked.
An opening disturbance
We don’t want to spend twenty pages following a character around as they muse about the weather, chat with their friends, walk through the forest, or go to work. We want to be quickly plunged into the action, and an opening disturbance does just that.
That doesn’t mean we can’t open with a seemingly normal, everyday scene—a teenager waiting for the bus, a woman walking into the bookstore she owns, a man stepping off a train and onto the platform. But the opening disturbance needs to quickly follow. For example, the teenager waiting for the bus sees a ghost, the woman walking into her bookstore finds it ransacked, the man stepping off the train meets a stranger. Something happens that shakes up the main character’s everyday routine.
If I pick up a book and find three typos in the first five pages, I’m not likely to buy it. What if I purchase it and find the rest of the book riddled with typos? If we find a lot of typos up front, we’re less likely to feel that the book can deliver on the promise of being a page-turning or thought-provoking work of fiction. In short, typos are distracting; they pull us out of the story and back into our workaday lives.
I think if the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of a book have these things, we’re much more likely to read on. I don’t want to read twenty pages of the woman walking through her bookstore, opening boxes, dusting the shelves, counting the change in the cash register. I want something to happen. I want an old flame to walk in the door. I want the place to be turned upside-down. I want a vampire to slink out of the corner. Something. And if it’s something happening to a character who intrigues us and the story is written in an engaging way, we’re much more likely to keep reading.
Lastly, a midweek ROW80 check-in…
So, I’ve decided to set a goal of writing 3,000 words/week during the semester. I don’t want to burn myself out, and 3K seems like a word count I can manage and still find time for grading and class prep, etc.
So far this week I’ve written 1,479 words in “Chosen by Magic.”
I haven’t managed to read any chapters in a book on writing. Hopefully next week I can get back into that.
A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. Click here to cheer on fellow participants.
What about you? What do you look for in a book opening? What hooks you and draws you into a story? And what is your favorite opening line to a book? Please share below!