Worthy Beginnings–Writing Tips Tuesday
How many times have you walked through a bookstore, opened a book, and read the first few lines of a novel only to quickly re-shelve and start your search for the perfect read all over again? Even on Amazon, the option to browse the first few pages makes or breaks a sale.
The title, cover, back cover copy, and endorsements are important. But those first few lines? Those first few paragraphs? Crucial. And worth the time to get them right.
I never end up with my original opening. It takes the journey of my story and the growth of my characters to point me back to the beginning so I can do the book justice. But when I’m ready to decide on and polish my opening, I keep five things in mind.
- Hook my reader with a lead sentence.
- Introduce the main character.
- Stage the setting.
- Set the tone.
- Establish my unique voice.
- State what my main character wants or needs.
The Lead Sentence:
The first sentence makes a promise to the reader. The first sentence lets them know what kind of ride they’re getting on. What if I stood in line under the Texas Teacups sign at Six Flags and when I reached the head of that line, what I actually found waiting was the front car of the Texas Giant. Or vice versa. That wouldn’t be fair.
If don’t enjoy horror, I don’t want to read horror. And if I open a book that makes me feel as though I’m sitting in a cozy teashop and then I get a serial killer with a machete—I’m mad. Not to mention disappointed I spent money on a book I won’t read.
The first sentence is also your pitch to the reader. Make your story shout, “I’m worth your time.”
How much more compelling is a first line that begins—Frank killed Gloria on a Tuesday, rather than, Tuesday was sunny, with a small haze of clouds moving in from the west.
Be fair to your reader. Make a promise. Then deliver. And make them salivate for your story with your first few words.
Introduce the Main Character:
Once you’ve hooked them, your reader will want to know whose journey they will be taking. I love to connect with characters, become them, live and breathe in their world. In order to do that, I need to know who they are.
What do they look like? Are they old or young? Male or female? What kind of personality do they have? How can I relate to them?
Introducing characters can be tricky. A person can’t see himself. He wouldn’t think to describe himself either. But with the right words and a few gestures or expressions, you can give your reader a feel for whose eyes they will be looking through for the next three hundred odd pages.
Remember that personality is just as significant as appearance. What someone wears, the way they speak, the things that are important to them, and the way they treat other people can be just as telling.
Introduce the Setting:
Your reader will want to know where and when the story takes place. Is your story in the past, present, or future? Urban? Suburban? On another planet? In another world? Where are the characters when the story opens? Where will you take them throughout the book?
Build your world from word one. Whether it’s our world or a fantasy world. I want to know where I will be living as I look through the main character’s eyes.
Set the Tone:
Do you want your readers to refuse to read your book at night due to high creep factor? Or are you going for a lighter mood? Will I laugh out loud at your character’s snarky comments or will I cry when family relationships are torn apart? The way you describe your characters and your setting will set the tone.
If you’re writing creepy. Open with creepy. Give me what I paid for on the first page. Set up my emotions, prime me to accept your world building and the relationships between your characters.
In other words, put me in the mood.
Your voice can be hard to find. Voice is one of those elusive things all writers have to discover for themselves. Somehow, when you stumble on your unique sound and style, the rest clicks into place.
Finding the right genre can be key. I know many authors who’ve penned everything from historical romance to high fantasy. Once you hit your groove, your writing flows more naturally.
Do you feel most comfortable writing in third person or first? Do you feel comfortable with light or heavy themes? Is your natural tendency to write with humor or does solemn describe your style? Play with different ways, try them on, see how they feel. And then pick your most natural voice and let it shine in those first few sentences.
State What Your Main Character Wants or Needs:
Everybody wants something. If your character doesn’t want anything, the engine driving your story has fizzled before it even got off the runway. What your character wants on page one does not have to be what she desires in the end. Life changes. Needs change. And so do wants.
In fact, as the plot twists and turns, your character’s wants and needs should change. Maybe they believe they want one thing only to find that’s not what they wanted at all.
But give us something to drive the plot on the first page. And make that something worthy of our time.