By Marcie Geffner
It might seem unfair, but it’s nonetheless true that the first few pages of your novel are the most important.
Whether you’ve written a two-hundred-page novella or seven-hundred-page saga, the opening matters because it’s your first and probably only opportunity to interest readers in your story. The first page in particular is also your one chance to interest a literary agent and publisher, if that’s your aim.
First impressions of people are often wrong. First impressions of novels are almost always right and indicative of the pages that follow. Strengths in the first few pages are continued throughout as are weaknesses, whatever they may be.
A good opening cues readers to the type of story they’re about to read, whether it’s a mystery, fantasy, literary fiction, memoir or in some other category on the bookstore’s bookshelf (or e-book equivalent).
A good opening introduces your story’s setting, includes at least two characters and sets your plot in motion. It also demonstrates that you understand voice and point of view and are in control of the words you've written. A good opening is clear, credible and specific and internal or external conflict or a problem the characters must resolve. One way to start a story is to establish normal for your characters and then disrupt it.
A good opening also offers readers something original, showing them that your story is different from any other story they’ve ever read. Yes, stories have similarities and genres have conventions you might want to follow, but a fresh concept takes your opening to the next level. Writing another Twilight, The Da Vinci Code or Stephanie Plum knockoff is fine, but only if yours is significantly and interestingly different from the model. Because if it's not, why wouldn’t readers pick up the original blockbuster instead of your unoriginal rehash?
The first three pages of your novel are also important to show that you can sustain your story and the tension you put on the first page. A clever “hook” in your first sentence or paragraph or on your first page can help to start your story; however, a hook that’s not followed up effectively will soon lose your readers' interest.
Weak openings lack balance between the necessary elements. A weak opening might merely setup something that’s going to happen later. Or it might introduce characters with little or no plot or plot with little or no character development. Some weak opening are all setting and lovely writing without much plot or character.
The weakest openings lift a dramatic scene from the middle of the story, recap a previous book in the series, include one or more backstory dumps or show that the author has no knowledge of novel-writing craft. Authorial intrusion into a character’s voice or head-jumping in point of view are two easy giveaways of an unschooled author.