Hello Readers and Writers,
It’s been a while since I put up an editing related post so I decided to change that by discussing the opening pages of a novel and what you can do to make them as crisp as they can be. These tend to be a struggle for most writers because not only do you have to introduce your main character and your world, but your opening is the most read by critique partners, editors, and agents.
This post will break down not only what makes strong opening pages, but give two examples from literature of how to do them well.
Your opening pages should establish the following things:
- Introduce us to your main character(s). One of the reasons why prologues don’t often work is because usually there’s a character shift. Your reader gets invested in a character and then that character is snatched away from them. Alternatively, starting with an opening that distances the reader from your main character leads to a lack of investment. It’s best to start your story with the main character. Give readers their voice/thoughts from the instant the book starts.
- Show us your character’s daily life. This is not to say we need a whole section of the book dedicated to this. Rather, we need a few paragraphs, sometimes a few chapters to establish what the character is used to. Do they trade? Are they a fighter? Do they have a complicated relationship with their family? Introduce what makes their life unique to them so that when the inciting incident happens, the readers can clearly see how this change affects what they’ve known for so long. This is a good time to begin world building.
- Give your main character a goal to work towards. This obviously doesn’t need to be saving the world or fighting evil or winning prom queen off the bat. Rather, it can be something small like getting their friend a present or fetching water just to establish how your character works towards something and offer a connection for the reader.
I know that may seem like a lot and you may be asking, “How do I cram my character’s entire world and life into a few pages?” The answer is: you don’t. You establish enough for the reader to want to continue reading. Readers know they won’t have the whole picture painted for them when they begin a book. You have time to establish that and if your characters/plot are engaging, readers will be willing to hold on.
Your follow up question is probably, “Okay, so how do I do all of this?” and my answer is, “Let’s take a look at a really prominent example in young adult literature, but also one of the most well-known books ever – The Hunger Games.”
The Hunger Games open up with Katniss missing Prim’s touch in bed. “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress” (pg 1).
What does this do? Well, two lines in and we already have: 1) The importance of Prim to the narrator – ie not having her touch makes the bed cold as well as the narrator. 2) We get a rather somber tone that will only deepen as the chapter (and let’s be honest book) goes on.
Later on the same page, we get the following lines:
“Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. …Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.”
In some cases, the lines above could be details we don’t truly need. Who needs to go in depth about a pet? But this paragraph establishes a few components of Katniss’s world without blatantly stating them. They establish her and her family isn’t well off. They establish that she takes on a leadership role. They also establish that she may not be as rough around the edges as she had been when Buttercup came into her life.
The chapter then moves through District 12 as she goes to the forest to meet Gale. This is a brutal look into poverty without outright saying people in District 12 are poor. Through her details of too skinny individuals, always needing to trade, and how the main source of income – the mines – is horrible to those involved. We also get the juxtaposition of the government not caring about their people.
Keep reading and we learn about Katniss’s complex relationship with Gale and the beginning snippets of the Games. Note that we don’t get paragraphs of information dumped into the narrative. We learn something’s up through the tone and conversation these friends carry. We don’t learn about the games until close to the end of chapter one when Katniss and her family are preparing to head to town square for the announcement of the tributes. We learn about the games not because they’re a thought that intrudes on the narrative, but because we as readers become part of the narrative. We follow Katniss into one of the most terrifying days out of the year.
And then of course, chapter one ends by Prim being called as a tribute. Because of Katniss’s conversation with Gale, her interactions in The Hob, and how she treats her sibling, we know that this is a shock to her life and we know this is going to change the course of the story.
So to summarize, how did The Hunger Games hit each of my three points?
- We’re introduced to Katniss right away along with her voice that sets up her need for her sister and her distaste for the way things are.
- We learn about Katniss’s daily life – she hunts, she can use a bow and arrow, she’s the provider for her family in a poor and suffering district. When Prim is chosen as tribute, we see not only the interruption of routine, but Katniss’s first loss of control.
- Katniss has two miniature goals in chapter one: seeing Gale in the woods and attending the selection of the tributes. Both of these goals reveal a lot of information about her and how she sees the world.
Next, I want to discuss the hesitance of beginning a story without establishing the main character and their life. While this tends to be the norm, I want to provide an example of a story that starts in the middle of the action so to speak, and does it well. This book is Nyxia by Scott Reintgen.
Note: there will be a mention of cancer in this explanation.
“You all know why you’re here.”
There are ten of us at the table. We all nod like we have a clue. Eight of the richest men and women in the world stand at the opposite end of the conference room. …But the lights and the room and the world are bending forward to hear the man who’s speaking: Marcus Defoe. He’s black, but not like me. I’ve spent half my life feeling like an absence, a moonless night.” (pg 1).
What do we learn from this opening page? We get a sense of warning, but we also get a juxtaposition of power between the narrator and Marcus Defoe.
Further into chapter one:
“Two of them flinched at the word cancer…I wonder if their parents have cancer. I wonder if that’s how Babel roped them into this monkey-in space routine. I wonder if they noticed me flinch right around the same time they did. It’s hard to hear the words that follow, because an image of Moms has snagged my attention…” (pgs 5 – 6).
This is a great example of not only crafting voice, but showing readers without actually being in the scene what life the narrator, Emmett, has come from. We understand implicitly that whatever Babel has done is through fear and preying on the conditions of loved ones. The author has too crafted empathy for Emmett because there’s an understanding of how expensive medical care is and how horrible is it to lose someone to a horrible disease. But more importantly, we learn the break in the model of his life – taking care of his parents.
The rest of the chapter sets up pieces of Emmett’s former life with memories of his friends and family as he decides to work with Babel. We get an introduction of the substance, Nyxia, that Babel wants each of those in the room to work with and understand. The author continues to expand the overwhelming imbalance of power and when people have come from hard situations, a chance at something better could mean everything.
“In my neighborhood, that kind of consolation prize would be more than enough. I’m sure it’s better money than anyone at this table could have imagined before today. But we already know there’s something better. We already know there’s a promise of riches that stretches on forever. The table’s full of greedy face. Babel’s curveball is working.
Competition. Supply and demand. Cage-style.” (pg 13).
This is the chilling end to chapter one and leaves the reader wanting more.
So to summarize, how did Nyxia meet my three points?
- We immediately get introduced to Emmett and know that he doesn’t have control in a life altering situation.
- We learn through brief flashbacks and the discussion with Babel that Emmett’s daily life was hard and he has a lot that he wants to fight for by being here.
- The goal of chapter one for Emmett is to agree to work with Babel and through their monetary compensation and promises of a better life, he does.
I know there was a lot in this post, but it comes down to practice and understanding – even if it takes a few tries – the best place for your story to begin. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave them below.
Also if you haven’t read either of these books, you should pick them up immediately.