They say never to judge a book by its cover, but everyone does that anyway. I remember one time stepping into a bookstore and being hypnotized by a glamorous, holographic and glittery cover to a new fantasy novel that I had to buy, regardless of the writing quality or story itself. But if you go the route of traditional publishing, there’s a good chance you won’t have much of a say (if any) in what your cover looks like. You will get one good shot at attracting and keeping new readers: your opening words.
The first 500 words of your novel carry a lot of weight. You’ll need to capture the readers’ attention, set the tone and bring the world to life along with a fascinating character (or two). Some people are horrified of writing their openers and save them for the end. Others don’t think much about it and subsequently wonder why no one ever reads or accepts their work.
I read some advice a while ago about how to open a novel–or rather, how not to open a novel. It turns out that a lot of beginning novelists fall into the exact same trap when trying to come up with a good opening. It’s easy to write, but bores readers and keeps them safely out of your world until you’ve told (yes, told) them enough about your story to begin. How do you stay out of this trap?
Don’t start your novel with a journey.
I’m serious. Even if it’s just a trip to the laundromat. Don’t. Traveling allows time for lengthy descriptions. It lets the main character think back on all the events that led to the trip and sets the stage for the rest of the novel. In all appearances it seems like an attractive and sophisticated option. Why is it a bad idea?
- Overuse. Seriously, you don’t think I just decided on a random opening and wrote about it for this article, did you? Lots of books start this way. One of my own early novels opened with the main character in the back seat of a car while his family drove past the border into Wisconsin. I had tons of description, flashbacks, and introductions. You do too.
- It’s boring. You don’t want to be boring. Especially so early in your novel. Start with action, with a conversation, or with a birdwatching session on a canoe. Start with your characters doing something other than just sitting and thinking.
- It doesn’t matter. Seriously. Just start at the destination and go from there. You’ll be shocked at how unnecessary your opening was and how much better it is now.
- It’s an easy way out. You might think you’re being clever, but you’re really, really not. You’re being cliche. This kind of opening is only a buffer to keep you from having to focus on the nitty-gritty details of now, allowing you to summarize events and get away with being vague and abstract in your writing.
- It keeps out the reader. You never want to block your reader. You want to draw him in, take him by the hand, seduce him and amuse him until he can’t take his eyes off your words. Don’t give him a chance to put your novel down.
Don’t worry if you’re in a late drafting stage and don’t want to change your journey opening. In most cases, you can cut it out entirely without missing a beat. Just work the vital tidbits into the next scene, and no one will ever know anything came before that. But this is one of the most important parts of your novel, so you can’t afford to take it lightly.
What are your tips for writing a killer opener? Is there any way that you like to dive right into your novel with a reader? Please share in the comments section! I’d love to hear from you.