The Best Opening

It has often been said that a reader has to be captivated by a book in the first three chapters or you’ve lost them. I’m here to tell you that is completely off. You have to grab your reader on the first page, generally in the opening of the first paragraph, in order to keep them hooked.

I can hear the comments now. “How will I set up the scene?” “What about describing my characters?” “Are you nuts?”

Well, the last question isn’t far off the mark, but the others have no place in the opening sequence. Once you have decided on a theme for your book, set up the outline if you’re a plotter, thought out your character’s names, their backgrounds, and the sequence of events, it’s time to sit back and stare at that white page on your computer.

How do you open your book? How do you grab the reader by the throat and keep them hooked for the rest of the story? Because that can and has been done many, many times. It’s just a matter of learning what to do to get their attention.

Things you shouldn’t do is open your book with a self-aggrandizing soliloquy from the narrator (you) about the people involved, what their backgrounds are, and how they react to certain situations.


It’s boring. Yawn time. The reader has left the book before they’ve turned the page. Nobody cares that you spent months and months perfecting this prose, so you present what you think is an absolutely outstanding opening. They don’t want to know background, which is where this type of opening belongs.

Your reader wants excitement. They want to see the action from the start. They are going to demand an eye-popping, muscle tightening opening scene that is followed by a well plotted novel they’ll enjoy.

Does this mean you have to start with a twist and attempt to keep up with the action from the start?

Absolutely not. But you do need an interesting introduction to the action that is about to come. Instead of an opening that lies on the ground doing nothing, start with a sequence like this…

Sirens blasted. The crackle of flames echoed off the buildings. She stood on the sidewalk, her mouth hanging open, her eyes wide.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”

The words left her mouth before she realized she had an audience.

This works much better than…

Sharon was an receptionist for a law firm specializing in estate law by day. By night, she read great tomes of magnificent literature, in order to sound more educated than she was. Her entire existence was nothing more than going to work, having lunch at her work station, stopping at the library on the corner of her street, and going home to a dinner that usually consisted of whichever Lean Cuisine package her hand touched first.

To say her life was boring was an understatement. She had never known such boredom before moving to New York City the week after she graduated college, ready to become a well known actress. But blonde actress wannabes were a dime a dozen in this massive, uncaring city and she had to live, so she took the first job where they didn’t laugh her out the door.

On this hot summer night, she’d had a fit of inspiration. Even though she’d never even cooked before, she had decided to create an impressive meal that would give her some home cooked leftovers that would make her feel better about herself. The only problem was that she left the chicken frying on a back burner while she ran to answer the phone, only to discover a producer who had previously laughed at her mediocre looks wanted her to audition for a new role in a play he was doing off-Broadway.

The crackling and popping was Sharon’s first warning of trouble. The next was a reddish yellow glow filling her miniscule kitchen. Snatching up her purse and the books she’d checked out for a night’s reading, she’d raced out of the building, thoughtfully pulling the fire alarm as she did.

Yup. Great prose. And your reader vanished before they reached Lean Cuisine. This is flat. It lies there on the page doing nothing, even though it’s nicely written. All of this background can be inserted in small sections throughout the book, as Sharon is living through the consequences of her actions.

Remember, rock your opening. That’s the first step in creating a great book.


Jack Strandburg said…
I find honing in on what is troubling your main character wants and emotions is a good way to get started.

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