I’m not going to lie to you – openings are hard. Balancing the structural work of world-building, plot, and setting with the artistic choices of character voice, narrative devices, and sentence rhythm is challenging even the most experienced authors. Add the challenge of hooking your readers from the first sentence, and you understand why writers rework their first pages dozens if not hundreds of times.
Pack a Punch
In her blog post, Amber gave some great tips about finding your character’s voice and having those opening pages pack a punch. Packing a punch is important. Always, always, always question if your opening scene is living up to its Gold Coast acreage. My writing group can attest that the opening scene in my UV 2016 submission, Requiem was my fifth attempt at creating a powerful opening. The best way to pack a punch is to force your character to make a decision that shows readers who she is and her values. Depending on your story, the decision can be as big as stealing information for her bosses like my protagonist Rix did or as small as deciding to walk home from school instead of taking the bus. We want to know why she’s doing what she’s doing and why it’s important.
Balance the action on the page with the narration
Younger readers and even a large number of adults find concentrating for long periods of time difficult. Forcing your readers to read paragraph after paragraph of backstory or worldbuilding before the protagonist does something is a surefire way to lose them. Study your pages, and if you find it is narration heavy, take out everything the reader doesn’t need to know right now and find a way to weave it into the story later. Or maybe you’ll find you don’t need it at all because, through your character’s actions, that piece of worldbuilding or backstory is no longer necessary.
We read to immerse ourselves into a new world and to see our world in a brand-new way, and your protagonist is our gateway to your story. Strangely, the more specific details we put in our stories, the more universal they become. If I see your character’s passion and devotion for a K-Pop band, I will recognize the feeling because that was how I felt about The Cure back in the day. Don’t tell us she hates visiting her cousin’s house, show us her physical reactions or allow us to hear her internal critical commentary to the pea-green paint in the kitchen and the ugly knickknacks on the bookshelves. Through your character’s free indirect speech (aka internal narration) and her actual dialogue, we should immediately understand how she feels about everything she comes into contact with.
Stakes are attached to what characters want
The action in the first scene, and even better, the very first sentence on the first page, should have something to do with what your character wants. Showing your character wanting something, preferably something she can’t get right away, is a great way to get readers interested. Suddenly, we gain a sense of what’s at stake for your character. It also raises questions that will keep us reading until we get answers. Just remember that it is our role as authors to take the questions we already have and complicate them further. Our characters should never get everything they want until the very end of the story.
Writing is Rewriting
Luckily, we don’t have to show anyone our first drafts. But when it comes to rewriting your first pages, it’s important to use what you’ve learned about your story while writing it. Spend time thinking about the themes and important symbols of your story and put them on that first page or as close to the first page as possible. Doing this will make your entire book stronger and readers will come back to it again and again.
If you are entering UV 2024, I wish you the best of luck. As you polish up your opening pages, remember, the books we love the most have been rejected in one form or another and that in the end you only need one “Yes”.