Before I was a full-time novelist I had my own science fiction, fantasy and mystery bookshop. Those years gave me a wonderful education when it came to readers and writing. Every day of the week I got to talk story with folk who loved books as much as I did. I also got to watch them as they perused the New Releases wall, where the latest books were temptingly displayed, always with the covers facing outwards.
Here’s what invariably happened. A reader would browse the wall of books. If they recognised an author and it was a book they’d been waiting for – or even if it came as a surprise – then it was usually snatched up without further ado. But if it was a brand new author, or someone they didn’t know, first of all – as a rule – the cover was what caught their eye. Then they’d pick up the book and read the blurb on the back, the thumbnail teaser designed to intrigue. If that worked, they’d then open the book and start reading. And after that, one of two things happened: they put the book back, or they bought it.
The really important thing to note here is this: the decision to buy or not to buy was made after reading the first couple of pages, at most. Sometimes it was after one page. Sometimes it was after one paragraph.
You know what they say, right? You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. And that’s why the first few pages of your novel are so very important. Because the same process happens when you send your unpublished manuscript to an agent, and they then send it on to an editor at a publishing house. Over and over again, your work is being swiftly judged and just as swiftly discarded if it doesn’t hit the reader’s sweet spot in those first few pages. It’s like going to a job interview dressed in a dirty teeshirt, saggy shorts and a pair of flip-flops. You might have the chops for the position, but nothing about your presentation says that’s the case.
Scary, huh? But since that’s the way the publishing and bookselling ball bounces, as writers it’s our responsibility to make sure we put our best foot forward from the get-go – especially since we don’t control the cover art. But here’s something to keep in mind. While a brilliant cover will entice a reader to pick up a book, it won’t keep them reading past the first page or two if the writer hasn’t done a bang-up job of engaging their interest.
So how do you do that? Well, the bad news first. There is no handy dandy sure-fire formula for writing a winning opening to a novel. And that’s because every novel is different, and requires a different approach. When it comes to modes of storytelling, there is no one right or wrong way. There’s only the best way to execute a particular mode. A thriller is different from a cosy mystery is different from a literary novel is different from space opera is different from urban fantasy is different from … well, you get the idea.
This means you need to do some reading homework, because every genre and subgenre has its conventions and you ignore those conventions at your peril. Readers have expectations. They pick up an urban fantasy because it’s a flavour of storytelling they enjoy and if you don’t meet their established expectations they’ll be disappointed and they likely won’t keep reading. The trick is for your work to be fresh, exciting and flawlessly executed within your chosen genre or subgenre’s accepted parameters.
It’s a challenge, no question. But it’s a challenge you have to meet if you’re going to keep an agent or an editor reading past those crucial first pages of your manuscript … and after that, the customer browsing in a bookshop or online.
So, first task: read widely in the genre or subgenre you’re aiming for. Read critically. Analytically. Pay close attention to the books that grab you from the start and think hard about why you want to keep reading. Deconstruct those first few pages. Make notes about what it is that pleases you in them. Pull back the curtain and decipher how the author has achieved a successful opening to their novel. Likewise, and in many ways even more usefully, do the same thing with the books whose openings don’t work for you. Why can’t you read past those first couple of pages? Are they clumsily written, with clunky dialogue and laboured prose? Poor grammar? No rhythm, no elegance? Is the opening sequence unoriginal? Confusing? Implausible? Again, make notes. Pay attention. Consider the execution of the finished product. Pull it apart to the nuts and bolts of its construction and find the faults.
Here’s another useful exercise: watch a bunch of pilot episodes for TV dramas (most useful are those made in the last 10 years or so, because they’re likely to have serialised elements that feel more novel-like than older tv dramas). Pilot episodes, like opening chapters, introduce characters and story to an unfamiliar audience. Again, watch critically and analytically. Don’t pay attention to the acting since it’s not relevant to a novelist. Listen to the dialogue. Keep track of the narrative as it unfolds. Compare and contrast the pilots that make you want to keep watching, with the ones you give up on before the episode ends. Then ask yourself why. Work out what caught your interest, what bored you, what turned you off. Remember: before it was filmed it was written. As the saying goes: if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. Or the screen.
Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. When do we get to the writing part?
But here’s the thing. The actual writing part comes last. First there’s a lot of thinking to be done. A lot of deconstructing how and why a story works, or doesn’t, in concept and execution. You need to have a handle on the story you’re telling and how you’re telling it. You need to know precisely what you’re looking to achieve in your opening pages and how you’re going to make that work. Which means you need to know the difference between readable prose and clunky prose. Believable dialogue and lumpen dialogue. An engaging, comprehensible beginning and a hot, confusing mess. Interesting, vibrant characters and walking caricatures and clichés. You need to know good from bad when you see it … and most importantly, when you write it.
Hence all the homework and the critical, analytical reading.
But about the writing part …
Have you ever watched a movie where the opening sequence is a long, long, long series of loving shots across windswept moors or a raging ocean or a rugged valley or a field of waving wheat? And it’s all beautifully filmed , all terribly artistic, but after a few minutes you start fidgeting in your seat and muttering Yes, it’s lovely, but when is something going to happen?
Or when you’re thrown into the middle of a battle scene and there’s a lot of noise and fighting and drama and blood and it’s all terribly visceral, but you stare at the screen and mutter, Hang on, where are we? Who’s fighting? Which ones are the good guys? What country is this? What the hell is going on?
Or when you’re confronted by a whole bunch of characters talking, or arguing, or having a party, or whatever, and you’ve got no idea who they are or what they’re arguing about or why it matters or who you’re supposed to side with? And you shake your head and mutter, Seriously? Why should I care?
All those mistakes happen in books, too. The five pages of lovingly described landscape with nary a walking, talking character to be found. The huge action scene with no context at all. The busy dialogue scene with name after name thrown at you and no reason given why you should want to know or care about any of them.
It’s not that any of these approaches is definitively incorrect. It’s just that if you do them poorly, you lose your reader fast. You need to set a scene, yes, you need to supply colour and atmosphere and ambience … but you also need something to happen. By all means start your novel with an interesting conversation, but make sure there aren’t too many characters talking at once and be careful to characterise them clearly so it’s not just a cacophany of interchangeable names. And if you’re writing an epic fantasy and you want to start with a battle, go for it! But keep your focus tight, give us one or two characters in the thick of the fighting who can be the reader’s guide and touchstone in this unfamiliar world.
Something else to consider: how much information do you give the reader at the start of the story? Not enough and they’re confused. Too much and they’re overwhelmed. It’s a balancing act. There’s a fear, especially in epic fantasy and space opera, where the world-building is extensive, that the reader will be lost if they don’t get a lot of explanation in the beginning. But more often than not that impulse is being driven by the author’s fear of not being able to weave the world-building seamlessly into the narrative. The trick is in drip-feeding the required information into the narrative – informing by stealth, as it were – not drowning the reader in one huge deluge of description and back story.
To that end, you’ll often hear a lot of groaning about the use of prologues, for example. But prologues can be wonderful. I’ve used the device a couple of times myself, to great effect. The trick there is not using your prologue like it’s a Wikipedia entry for your fantastic fantasy world. Instead you take what’s called an ‘inciting incident’, some event in your character’s life that dramatises an important moment of change, a catalyst that starts the story rolling. In The Innocent Mage it’s Asher leaving home in secret, sneaking out of his cottage in the middle of the night to make a better life for himself, leaving his father and brothers behind. In The Falcon Throne it’s the dreadful moment where Salimbene, his kingly father’s heir, is sealed in his chamber to die alone and stinking of a disease that marks him as unclean and therefore unfit to rule. Think of the prologue to the film The Fellowship of the Ring. We’re shown the last climactic stand against Sauron, his defeat and the losing of the great ring. In each case these prologues are dramatic, they’re full of characters in action, illustrating a moment of catalyst that sets the larger story events in motion.
When it comes to the beginning of your novel, whatever kind of story you’re telling, you want to intrigue the reader, not confuse them. Entice them, not overwhelm them. Tease them, not irritate them. The first few pages of your book are an invitation. Is it going to be hastily scribbled with a leaking pen on a ratty piece of paper you dug out of the bottom of your satchel? Or is it going to be beautifully engraved in copperplate on thick, expensive handmade paper, with rich indigo ink?
Beginnings are important. Make every effort to make sure you get yours right.