You’ve heard you need to grab your reader’s attention with a compelling first page, but often I see writers who start their novel with action, but not tension. The difference is perhaps subtle, but very real. Tension is created when the reader sees a character grappling with specific and relatable problems, while action without context is not inherently interesting.
Sure, writing action is fun, and at our most basic, humans are primates who are attracted to movement. But starting a novel with a knife fight, or a battle, or even a heated argument, is not a guarantee of creating narrative tension. Narrative tension comes from showing characters who are grappling with relatable problems, and dramatizing the internal and external conflicts that fuel their actions and decisions. These internal and external conflicts, and how they change the characters over the course of events, will be the backbone of a compelling popular novel.
When I edit science fiction and fantasy manuscripts, part of what I do is point out moments where the writer may think the story has clear narrative tension, but I’m not sure what’s at stake for the characters. What is it your characters want? What specific problems are they facing, both external and internal? How does their history and perspective inform their decisions, and shape how they see the world? Most manuscripts need clarity on these issues, and often I can see opportunities inherent in the material that the writer hasn’t considered.
For your novel to really grab the reader’s attention, action isn’t enough. The reader needs to relate to your characters’ problems, and feel your characters are driven to eventually resolve their problems. The characters may be in for a really bumpy ride, they may feel incapable or reluctant, and their conflicts are part of what keeps us reading, but truly loveable and compelling characters are consistent in that they’re grappling with clear and powerful problems.