It's no secret that it's vital to get the beginning of your novel right.
So how do you do that?
Much easier said than done, but the essence of writing a good beginning is to write something that makes the reader care. Immediately.
Mistakes Authors Make--and Why They're Mistakes
These are for your "don't" list. Though I do have to say there are always ways to get around them, so don't consider them the final word.
- Don't try to set the scene/give back story/explain the situation before having anything happen. This is a mistake because readers don't have the context to understand why this is important if you give it to us before we care. We will forget what you're explaining to us, like we forget our history homework when its lessons don't apply to our lives. No matter how much you believe we need this information to understand anything--especially you, fantasy authors--many readers will not sit through a lecture about the power structure of your fictional kingdom or a spiel about your protagonist's family history.
- Don't begin with the mundane unless it immediately hints at the non-mundane coming right up. It's very good to show what "normal" is for this character if "normal" is not what we'd expect, but in general you should try to start your story at the point where everything changes--the point where events start building toward the main plot of the book. You can have your characters beginning "just another day" if you can suck us into caring about where we're going from here, but don't spend an entire first chapter--or even an entire first page--trying to establish the day-to-day. You shouldn't be basically publishing your main character's diary of the everyday unless we have the context to know that the everyday is clearly about to be extraordinary.
- Don't start at the climax just as a ploy to get our attention. Some authors can pull off the "start at exciting scene, then back up to 'here's how it all began'" technique, but in most cases, the context for why the exciting scene matters is absent at this point, and the attempts to graft meaning onto it will immediately taste like blatant exposition to the reader. If you start with your sword fight, I don't know who I'm rooting for so I won't care who wins. Similarly, don't dance. Meaning don't throw action words, blinking adjectives, and overly constructed sentences at us to get our attention.
- Don't worry so much about establishing the main characters' physical appearance, relationships, or situation right at the beginning. Beginnings are HARD, and many authors feel compelled to work out who and what they're writing about in the first couple chapters before they really get started. No, you should really get started without focusing so much on that. The attempts to feed us details gracefully often fall flat, with awkward descriptions of first-person main characters (often looking in the mirror or angsting about their appearance) and shoehorned-in descriptions of others (giving them hair-fiddling gestures, for instance, just so the color and texture can be described, and then the rest of the story does not feature that character playing with their hair at all). You see characters establishing relationships through lines such as "How is my mother, the queen?" or establishing history through lines like "so how is the project going? You know, the one where you were supposed to gather the soil samples and present your data?" Don't be so desperate to give us all the info at the beginning. Relax; readers are patient about context, but they're not patient about waiting for you to get a story started.
- Don't blame the reader for not giving you a chance. Authors: you should never behave as if your reader should be humoring you. Time and time again in my work with other authors I see people saying test readers, agents, and publishers aren't being fair when they only read a few pages and then put it down. No! It's not that they're not giving you a chance. It's that the beginning few pages were your chance, and if they put it down, you blew it. It's your job to entertain them and make them care. "And how am I supposed to do that if I can't X, Y, or Z?" is also a common question. And the answer is . . . if it was easy to teach you that, man, writing wouldn't be an art. You've got to find your own way to do it. You don't have to be cheap, or use tricks, or try desperately to set the scene right there on page one. Just make sure something happens that will make us care, and let us watch it. Let us love it. You don't have to scream love poetry or stab us with Cupid's arrows; just let us fall in love.
Ideas For Great Beginnings
These are for your "do" list. Use these ideas as a guideline for comfortably getting into your novel.
- Establish an excellent voice. "Voice" is a big buzzword these days, but there's a reason for that. Readers will quickly develop an appreciation for your protagonist or your narrative style if you have a pleasant and compelling way of telling a story. Even if nothing is happening exactly, something is happening if the way you're writing is establishing something. It's kind of like even if you don't like the lyrics of a song, you'll still tune in to listen to amazing singers' voices. This is not to downplay content, of course, but how you tell the story will get you very far, and excellent characters with voices we want to hear more of are a great way to get readers to be patient with you if you have a rather complex scene to set.
- Feature character interaction. So much can be done with conversation and shared action, and it has the added benefit of showing us who's interesting besides your main character. You have to be careful to avoid "as you know, Bob" conversations in the beginnings of novels. Showing us the interaction of two or more characters gives you the opportunity to show us their personalities and backgrounds without narrating who they are or having the protagonist dwell on anything about them. Beginning with dialogue--as long as it's an interesting conversation--is a good "trick" for getting people to keep reading, because by the time the conversation is over, readers may already be invested in the characters. You do have to be careful about having them say something compelling, though, because if we don't know these people then we may feel more like we're watching best friends talk in inside jokes. If they're doing something together, these characters, we get to see what they want and how they pursue things they want instead of, oh, waking up in the morning, dreaming about something as a cheap introduction to their psyche, or looking in the mirror narrating what they think of their own looks.
- Introduce something that is just as new to the characters as it is to the readers. When something changes in your protagonist's life, even if it's right at the beginning, their reaction to the change tells the reader loads about what things were like before that changed. You don't have to say a word about how Dad usually works late if your character is shocked by coming home to find him in the kitchen cooking dinner (or, even better, on the couch in his pajamas doing something out of character).
- Choose an amazing first sentence and set it on its own line. Try to stay away from deliberately philosophical first lines and clichés, because they often sound like you're trying really hard to be clever (and we see the trying, not the cleverness). But give us something attention-getting while not too cheap. You can say SO MUCH in one line, and you can think of something that will pull us in. There's a story of undetermined authenticity about Ernest Hemingway writing an entire short story in six words. The six words were "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Says a lot, yes? What can you come up with that might make a reader do a double-take and say "Wait, what?"
- Feature emotion. Showing a protagonist reacting emotionally--or displaying one emotion while trying to hide another--or having an outburst and being reacted to by another character--works to pull readers in. This is especially effective if it's a relatable situation, like trying to be happy for a friend when they begin a new romantic relationship (with someone the protagonist had a crush on), or waiting for a phone call that just keeps not coming, or losing a pet, or being expected to handle something they can't handle. It's a shortcut to helping readers identify with characters, and assists in showing what this character cares about and what their coping mechanisms are, which has the added bonus of hinting at their history and personality.
I recommend that if you're struggling with your beginning, you should consider it a problem to be attacked in later editing. It's wonderful if you've got your hook and BOOM, it's the perfect opening, but most authors don't get that lucky. Write your beginning. Put as much of the don'ts in there as you want. Establish physical appearances and histories and as-you-know-Bob conversations. But then take them out after you have your stuff straight. Make a list of the elements that were important in the parts you're cutting and find more graceful ways/places to introduce them, and really focus on crafting a compelling, luscious opening that will make readers want to continue (rather than feeling like they're tapping their foot waiting for you to get started).
Read some agents' perspectives on what works for them and what doesn't in the opening pages of a novel: