There are exceptions to almost every rule, so take any advice with the proverbial grain of salt. For instance, some of the greatest writers in history have started books with dialogue or description. However, unless you have excellent skills in description or dialogue, you should probably think twice before building your whole book on that foundation. I found Ms. Zimmitti's advice excellent on most counts, and hope you will, too.
Hook Your Reader from the First Sentence - How to Write Great Beginnings
By Lucia Zimmitti
Let's face it: when you send your writing off in the hopes it will be published, every word is important. You wouldn't give yourself permission to get sloppy after page 37, assuming the editor can handle choppy prose or "inventive" spelling if she made it that far. But what you may not realize is that the beginning of your manuscript is by far the most important part because it will encourage an editor to read on or to toss the whole thing aside. After all, you may have crafted an admirable middle or a breathtaking ending, but no one will get there if your beginning is mediocre.
Despite the fact that more books are being published than ever before, the publishing world is more competitive than ever before. Agents and editors are inundated with staggering heaps of unsolicited manuscripts, and it is physically impossible for them to plow through -- in their entirety -- every one. The beginning is the only chance you have to make the right impression.
Face it, unless you have to, how often do you push through a book when you're under-whelmed by the beginning?
Which brings us to some rules for great beginnings. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but often those exceptions are only successful in the hands of experienced writers or those with multi-book deals. For the typical writer, it pays to heed what the current market demands.
Make your beginning shine:
~Start with action.
"Action" doesn't necessarily mean a fist fight or an explosion or a sky-dive gone awry. Action means starting your book or story at a compelling place, with a scene, with something at stake for your characters. Look closely and you may find that you have pages of material that shouldn't start your book. They may fill in some important blanks for readers, but those pages of backstory can safely be moved to a spot in chapter two or later (or, better yet, spread out in smaller chunks throughout the work).
Don't start your story with history -- start it with a riveting now that grabs the reader by the collar and doesn't let him/her turn away.
~Never put dialogue or straight description in your opening lines.
To clarify: Dialogue is fine in the first scene. Actually, many experts agree that first scenes without dialogue don't achieve their potential. This is because the most compelling reading material involves tension between people, and people usually talk to each other. However, if your very first lines are dialogue, it's impossible for the reader to understand who is speaking right off the bat (or why s/he as a reader should care), since the reader hasn't had any history with the characters.
Similarly, description right up front will not pull your reader into the story. Not because it confuses or disorients them like dialogue does, but because static description can be dull and plodding and doesn't tell the reader anything about the story (the action, the story problem) itself. If the setting is somehow crucial to your first scene and you feel you must start there, limit it to one or two sentences and then get right into the meat of the scene. There will be time for description later.
~Make sure your writing is accessible and engaging.
Your beginning is not the place to try out some experimental stylistic device or to stump your readers with a puzzle. You want to make your readers think, but you don't want them to feel stupid or say, "Huh?" If the reader feels frustrated and confused right away, you can bet they won't sign up for 300 more pages of it.
~Set up the story promise.
You've seen shoppers at bookstores. They scan the bookflap for a description, and, if that intrigues them, they'll flip to page one and skim the opening to see if it's the kind of book they want to read. Immediately make it clear what kind of story yours is. Don't start with a knock-knock joke if it's an essay about a serious subject. (Although there's room for humor in almost any piece, it must be appropriately woven into the work and not tacked onto the wrong place. But that's a subject for another article.) Don't start with the point of view of a character you're planning to kill off by page three. You get the idea.
Readers like surprise -- they don't like to feel disoriented.
~Always remember that boredom kills readership.
If you're bored when you write the opening, if you fall asleep at your desk when you reread it, and if trusted readers can't stop yawning when they review it, what makes you think strangers you send it to will be riveted by it? Readers have more choices than ever before (in print and online), and they will not stick with you past a few dozen words if they're bored. Make sure your beginning glues your readers to the page, wide awake and eager for more.
To discover more ways to give your writing the best odds in a highly competitive market, visit http://ManuscriptRx.com and sign up for "Write Through It," a free, monthly e-newsletter that offers tips on writing more clearly and effectively.
Lucia Zimmitti, a writing coach and independent editor, is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the Editorial Freelancers Association. Her fiction and poetry have been published in various national literary journals, and she has taught writing at the high school and college levels.
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