Novels that most of us read while in school probably opened very differently than successful novels of today. In the past, an author was allowed the luxury of giving the reader details right away about the main character’s past, sometimes even going back to their birth and childhood. Other past novels opened with long descriptions of the setting or the point in history in which the story takes place. These details provided rich context out of which the novel itself would grow.
In today’s market, however, readers have little patience for a lot of what we call backstory – those things that happened before the main story of the novel begins. Unless a writer opens with backstory that is perfect in tone and content, a slow opening of this sort will often result in rejection after reading, or there may be times that a publisher or agent never makes it past those first few pages. As an editor for aspiring writers, the slow opening, an opening without originality, or an opening filled with backstory are some of the most common things I advise authors to relinquish. Often I find the truly great opening a few pages into, or sometimes a few chapters, into the story.
If you are struggling with this issue as a writer, make every attempt to start your book with action and a problem, if not in the first paragraph, then in the first pages. Start with the hook, something that immediately draws in the reader, and then later you can tell the backstory in smaller segments as the book progresses. You can squeeze it in amidst the action. It is not necessary for your readers to know everything about your protagonist’s life and history before you draw them in. The reader needs to become interested first.
You may also open with a strong sense of a unique character, and make sure it is intriguing. Or open with fascinating dialogue, or employ techniques such as foreshadowing to provide that “hook” that publishers are looking for today.
Here are some examples of great openings in books I have recently read. In Sarah’s Key, Tatiana De Rosnay opens with the following paragraph:
The girl was the first to hear the loud pounding on the door. Her room was closest to the entrance of the apartment. At first, dazed with sleep, she thought it was her father, coming up from his hiding place in the cellar. He’d forgotten his keys, and was impatient because nobody had heard his first, timid knock. But then came the voices, strong and brutal in the silence of the night. Nothing to do with her father. “Police! Open up! Now!”
De Rosnay immediately puts her character in danger and establishes the beginnings of plot.
Here is another example that employs a strong sense of character in the present. Chris Cleave does this so well in his novel, Little Bee:
Most days I wish I was a British pound instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead – but you would be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a cold Coca-Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be happy, like lovers who met on holiday and forgot each other’s names.
A powerful opening that establishes setting and also ties it to character with a strong sense of foreboding is exemplified well in The White Mary by Kira Salak:
The black waters of Elobi Creek show no sign of a current. It is another dead waterway, Marika tells herself, one that will breed only mosquitoes and crocodiles. Another waterway that somehow reflects – in the darkness of the water, in its stillness – all of her failings. These waters, this breathless heat, seem to be waiting for a response from her, a call to action. But she has no answers. And if she’s to be honest with herself, she never had any. Things will unravel. They will fall apart.
Study other fine openings and work to come up with your own unique twist on your first words. If you are stumped, seek the advice of an editor. An entire book for writers has been written on this subject alone: The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.
Best of luck on finding the perfect opening for your book.
ANA HOWARD writes and edits contemporary and historical children’s, young adult, and adult literature. She has seen one of her novels made into film and has won numerous literary awards.