Whenever people ask me what the most difficult part of writing a book is — the beginning, middle, or end — I usually say, “All of it.” Each section of a novel comes with its own set of challenges: Middles are hard to plot, ends need to be satisfying (and in my novels, they usually involve a twist), but then there is a novel’s beginning, which, if I really had to choose, is truly the toughest.
In this age of instant gratification, short attention spans, and tons of other great fiction to compete with, a novel’s beginning needs to grab the reader. Otherwise they might deem the book a big DNF (did not finish) — or if they’re perusing the sample pages online or first pages in a bookstore, they might not make the purchase at all. So how can you start a story with a bang?
1. Startle readers with the first line.
Shocking readers immediately with a jarring moment, visual, or confession will get them excited to read on. One of my favorite novels, the Pulitzer-winning Middlesex, starts with a doozy of a first line:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
It’s surprising and mysterious, and it gets the reader right into the main character’s head — it’s a confession of sorts, which unravels throughout the novel. For me, there was absolutely no way I could put the book down.
2. Begin at a life-changing moment.
A life-changing event for a protagonist can be their “inciting incident” — a moment that thrusts him or her into the conflict they must resolve or overcome by the end of the story. The first chapter of Jodi Picoult’s Handle with Care talks about a baby’s birth — always exciting! But things get even more interesting when the baby emerges with a whole host of health problems — forcing her parents to make a heart-wrenching decision.
This “inciting incident” all happens within the first ten pages of the novel. By the end of chapter one, the reader knows the whole situation at hand, and can’t turn the pages fast enough to see what happens next.
3. Create intrigue about the characters.
When writing first chapters — of thrillers, especially — it’s fun to hint at trouble, lies, secrets, and scandal, but not give away everything. In my novel, The Heiresses, I start with the lines: “You know the Saybrooks. Everyone does.”
This family is wealthy, NYC royalty, living a charmed life. But at the bottom of page one, things start to darken — I mention that every family member has a secret, and that they’re a bit cursed. Who isn’t tempted to read on about that?
4. Use a setting as the inciting incident.
I’ve already mentioned the “inciting incident” — the story beat that really gets the plot going. Sometimes, a place itself can cause or be the inciting incident. If it is, why not start the character there (or at the very least, on a mode of transport going there) to dive right in?
A great example is in The Shining, where Jack is at the infamous Overlook Hotel interviewing for a new job. The reader thinks this is going to be a fresh start for him and his family… but of course, they’re wrong. Stephen King could have filled the first pages with exposition of Jack back in his old life, but starting the novel at the hotel — which is a character in itself — plunges the reader into the story.
5. Up the stakes within the first few pages.
In a thriller, it’s always great to start with a murder, a body found, or someone going missing — it sets up the problem and goal for the rest of the novel. In my series The Amateurs, the introduction is all about how main character Aerin Kelly’s sister, Helena, goes missing — and throughout the rest of the book, Aerin and the group of detectives she meets up with aim to figure out what happened.
Another example of this is in The 57 Bus, the true story of a hate crime involving an agender teen in California. The first scene shows us that crime, but then the author rewinds a bit from the perspectives of both the perpetrator and the victim, diving deeper into each of their realities. The way author Dashka Slater lays out those first scenes in a confessional, conversational sort of way, the reader feels pulled into the action and compelled to know what series of events caused this horrible tragedy — and how it could have been avoided.
6. Introduce something ominous right away.
Withholding information about something seemingly normal can make it ominous — and intrigue readers to read on. One of my favorite novels when I was a kid was I Know What You Did Last Summer, by Lois Duncan, the queen of YA thrillers. In the first chapter of this book, Duncan doesn’t mess around — she gets right to the note that unravels the main characters’ lives immediately: “The note was there, lying beside her plate when she came down to breakfast.”
Right off the bat, readers ask: What is the note? Why does it matter? Where does it come from? And they’ll want to read on to find out. (By the way, it was this anonymous note that partly inspired me to create the villain A in Pretty Little Liars — there is nothing scarier than someone watching you and knowing all your secrets!)
7. Set the mood.
Setting the mood of the book right off the bat — whether it’s of doom, mystery, mischievousness, or snarkiness — says to the reader, “This is what the world is, you’re now immersed in it, and here we go.” In the classic dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell’s first line reads: “It was a bright cold day in April, and all the clocks were striking thirteen.” Immediately, the reader knows that this is both a world they understand — same weather patterns, same terms for months in the year — but also a world that is foreign to them. And by choosing “thirteen,” a number so often linked to unluckiness, Orwell immediately creates tension and mystery. This is not going to be a cheerful novel, he telegraphs. Ominous things are going to happen.
Another great example is Nick Dunne’s first line in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” It’s so chilling upon first read, and though Nick pulls back a little and corrects our preconceived notions about what he means, his words still set the tone about who he is and what the book is going to be like.
8. Make your characters sympathetic — and relatable — immediately.
In a character-driven novel, it’s key to make the characters loveable to readers as soon as possible. In the introduction to the first Pretty Little Liars, readers get a look at Aria, Hanna, Spencer, and Emily on the very first pages. The girls are all relatable — Aria’s the goofball smelling the grass, Emily’s the girl with the strict parents, Hanna’s the klutz, and Spencer is the uber-competitive girl who didn’t make the JV cut for hockey. To readers, these girls feel like people they might already know — and this is all packed into two pages. That way, by the time their BFF Ali goes missing — and A starts to torture them — the reader already feels for these girls, and is invested in their stories.
9. Draw in the reader with a strong voice.
Some of my favorite novels are told from the first person, and it’s the compelling voice that makes the first pages sing. A classic example is Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In the Rye:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Through these lines, the reader forms an immediate opinion of Holden. It’s also compelling how he addresses the reader directly, almost making them feel like a friend. I also love this first-person line from Feed by MT Anderson: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” Again, the reader gets a sense of character, mood, and world — all in a simple sentence!
10. Start at a moment of confusion.
The classic jolting awake and not knowing what’s going on trope is always a fun way to begin a story. In my latest novel, The Elizas, the main character, Eliza Fontaine, awakes in a bed she doesn’t recognize. She is finding out along with the reader what happened to her — she fell into a pool and is now in the hospital — and it soon becomes clear that it’s her mission to fill the holes in her memory and track down who made her almost drown. This structure works well because it’s a book about hazy memories and confused brains, but readers can search alongside her to put together all the pieces.
11. Don’t get bogged down with exposition.
It can be tempting to reveal everything about a character — their background, their struggles, their secrets — within the first few pages. This way readers will truly know them, right? But I advise against it. Having more active first few pages or chapters using some of the tips outlined above will create more of a page-turning experience, and you can get to that nitty-gritty character stuff later.
A professor in my MFA program gave me great advice once: Pretend your characters are at a party, and they’re talking to you, the reader, for the first time. Would they really tell you their whole history right away, or would they do so only getting to know you? A few telling character traits here and there can go a long way toward getting us to sympathize with a character. Once the reader is hooked, then it might be time delve into that backstory. It’s a delicate balance, but in the beginning of a novel, less is often more!
12. End the first chapter with a killer cliffhanger.
We’ve talked a lot about how to start first chapters, but what about how to end them? One of the biggest challenges I have when writing a novel is working in enough cliffhangers to keep readers wanting more. (Stephen King is a master at this.)
In Pretty Little Liars, my last lines of the introduction are: “It was horrible to think Ali might be dead, but… if she was, at least their secrets were safe. And they were. For three years, anyway.” Which immediately has the reader asking, “Wait? What happens? Does Ali come back?”
In I Know What You Did Last Summer, Duncan ends the first chapter with Julie opening the note and… OMG. It reads, I know what you did last summer! Straight to the point, in a perfect setup of what’s to come, Duncan says to the reader: “I dare you not to turn the page.” This is what you want to accomplish in those first chapters: Create an irresistible experience that readers can’t possibly put down.
So there you have it! What are some of your favorite first lines — and first chapter tips and tricks?
The views and opinions expressed in this guest post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BookBub.
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