By Ross B. Lampert
Experienced writers understand that the most important chapter of a book isn’t the last one, but the first one. And that the first paragraph is the most important paragraph. And that the first sentence is the most important sentence. And that the first word… well, let’s not get carried away here.
But that understanding about the first sentence, paragraph, and chapter makes sense. The purpose, after all, of each of these firsts is to get the reader to read the one that follows: the second sentence, the second paragraph, the second chapter. Why? Because the writer wants the reader to keep reading, to keep going, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter. In other words, to get lost in the fictive dream, to forget they’re reading a book or a short story—or even a non-fiction article.
That means a well-turned opening is something to celebrate.
What makes for a good, if not great, opening? Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked, which I highly recommend, says the first 30 pages of a book need to have three things:
- The inciting incident: The event that launches the story by changing the characters’ worlds irrevocably.
- The surface problem: This is likely the inciting incident, or something related to it, but notice the word “surface.” It’s the first thing the characters, especially the protagonist will have to deal with, but it sure won’t be the last. Or the most important.
- Hints of the “story-worthy problem”: This is the problem—often psychological, Edgerton says—that will drive the protagonist through the story. Notice the word “hints.” Edgerton says the whole problem likely won’t be revealed until late in the book, maybe at the end.
Now, Edgerton says those elements have to be present within the first 30 pages. I think it’s more like the first 10. Readers can be such sadists: they want to see the protagonist in trouble right away, and the bigger the trouble, the better. In a fantasy novel a friend of mine is working on, her little girl protagonist finds herself in a city in ruins with dragons fighting in the air above her. They’re likely to destroy the entire world in the process and when they do, it’ll be all her fault. One of the bodies she stumbles over as she tries to escape is that of her former torturer. And then she finds a just-hatched baby dragon. All of that in the first five pages!
It’s got everything Edgerton asked for:
- Inciting incident: The destruction of the city.
- Surface problem: The world’s about to be destroyed.
- Story-worthy problem: Little Trina is clearly more than she seems—and she must have a BIG secret she needs to keep hidden. Somebody was torturing her, after all. What is it? Can she keep it hidden? Will she?
Now, not every opening needs to be that big and dramatic but what it has to do is draw the reader in so they can’t stop reading. They HAVE to find out what’s next, and what happens after that, and after that, and….
Whether we like it or not, the days of the long slow build, full of back-story and character development are over. That material can—and should!—come later. It may be part of those first 10 or 30 pages but it can’t be all there is to them.
So when you as a reviewer find a story opening that draws you inexorably forward, be sure to let the author know that he’s succeeded and how and why he did.
How can you do that? For starters, you can identify what you felt were the three elements Edgerton describes. Then, you can describe:
- What the first thing was that caught your attention in a positive way and made you curious to find out more.
- What was it about that thing that drew your attention, and why.
- What the next thing was. Did it build on the first one, or was it something new? Why did it draw your interest?
- What other elements continued to draw you forward into the story.
One final note: beginnings are important throughout the story, not just on page one. Each chapter—indeed, each scene—needs to begin in a way that pulls the reader onward. Not every chapter or scene beginning will be dramatic, but each one needs to plant another hook that keeps the reader from putting the story down.
So, what do you look for that serves as a marker of a strong beginning to a story or novel? Share your thoughts in the comments below.