Obviously, the opening of your story is important. Other than the back cover synopsis, this is the first experience readers are having with your story. This is where you introduce them to your world, to your characters, and to the story that they’re going to be reading (or not). Many readers take a peek at the first page of a book before deciding whether or not to buy it. I don’t necessarily support the pressure that’s always put on the first line of a story, but I do think the opening, as a whole, is important to consider.
Common wisdom says that you should include some type of “hook” in the beginning of your story. Often, this means something super exciting or super confusing. If it’s something exciting, that will spur readers on to continue reading because they’re caught up in the action. If it’s something confusing, that will cause readers to continue because they want to figure out what’s going on. However, beware of making your beginning too confusing. If you’re really throwing your readers in the deep end, give them some type of life raft to hang onto — make a connection with a character (perhaps one who is as new to the story as you are) or describe a really lovely and intriguing setting. Anything you can do to offset the confusion is helpful.
Personally, the opening needs to work for me just as much as it works for readers. I don’t sit down to write until I have some type of opening in my head. I’ll often come up with a line of dialogue, some exposition, or a scene I want to describe and then go from there. Once I’ve formulated that, I can move forward pretty easily. So think about what you like to write and also what you like to read. Do you enjoy when books jump right in and start their story in the middle of the action? Do you prefer a slowed-down description of a character or a setting? If you’re feeling stumped on how to start your own story, go back to stories that you really loved and examine how they begin.
In a recent article on Writer Unboxed, author Donald Maass discussed openings and what type of tone you should try to achieve. At the end of his article, Donald boiled it down to two very simple guidelines — “find something warm and human that your main character cares about” and include “something different, odd, curious, puzzling, weird, contradictory or hard to explain.” It’s important to make a human connection with your readers by describing the humanity of your main character. And, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s good to have something weird or confusing that makes readers want to keep reading to figure out. Just make sure that you explain it eventually!
Openings can be difficult to crack, and you might even want to postpone working on it until you know your story really well. There’s no shame in getting to the action and then returning to formulate your beginning later on. Happy writing!
— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan