In your opening page, you have a very short window to hook a reader’s interest, whether you’re trying to get an agent or to get a reader to buy your book in a bookstore. So with this in mind, I’m going to break down what I’m looking for in an author’s opening pages, whether it opens with description, action or dialogue.
There are three things I’m looking for in an opening: to be grounded in the story; to be grounded in the characters; and to be surprised.
Being grounded in the story can mean an understanding of where and when the book takes place. It can also mean what’s happening in the opening scene and why. It seems simple, but if your book doesn’t do this, you will quickly lose a reader’s interest.
Being grounded in the character is closely related to being grounded in the story, except that the focus is on the voice of the novel, on the point of view that’s telling the story. Voice can mean where the person is from (e.g., if he speaks in dialect), how he views the world (if he’s jaded, gullible, etc), if he’s educated/uneducated, and a million other factors that make a person who he is. A strong narrative voice is integral to the reader’s ability to connect to a character and become invested in his journey, which is why it’s so important that this voice comes through on your opening page.
And finally, I want to be surprised by an opening. I want there to be a description, image, action or idea that is expressed in a way I’ve never read before. But I’m not suggesting you use big words or break out the thesaurus. In fact, the simplest description can be really intriguing. For example: “I was born in sand.” This immediately grabs my attention, because it makes me ask, “How? How can a person be born in sand? What does that mean?” When you make the reader ask a question, you are making them engage with your book, which is the first step to hooking their interest. But you can’t drop a phrase like that and then not explain it, or else it’s like clickbait and the reader feels cheated. So if you open with that surprising image, you then need to ground the reader in the story and the character.
There’s no right or wrong order to do these three things. You just want to make sure you do them on the first page, or else a reader might not get to the second.
Pull Them In With Description
In some shape or form, I’d say description is the most common opening I see. Here I’m referring to descriptions of a place, a thing, a frame of mind, and a million other things that don’t involve action. (I’ll get into action in a second.) This kind of opening is probably the easiest way to ground the reader in the story and character and surprise them with some unusual image or idea.
The most common description I see is of scenery. I ask authors to be very sparing with these kinds of descriptions, because if you use too much description of a setting, it can prevent the reader from getting grounded in the characters. But even this depends on how you describe it. If it’s just mute imagery without meaning, it can get boring really quickly. However, if you use the description to help establish the narrator’s point of view, it can be quite powerful. For example, if you describe the mountains off in the distance as “silent warlords keeping a watchful eye over the town,” it gives me a hint of the character’s point of view and the world he inhabits. It makes me feel like there’s something oppressive in the landscape, which can help signal that this is a dystopian world the protagonist lives in. In that sense, it serves as a metaphor for a Big Brother-type government. Or it can signal that the protagonist is paranoid, that he sees oppression wherever he goes. Or that he feels smothered by his small town and wants to a change of scenery. If you had just described the mountains as “majestic crags,” I would’ve learned nothing about the character or the story, and I would’ve quickly lost interest. So use description of things outside of a character to show the reader what’s inside the character. Otherwise your description will feel superfluous and boring.
If you open with description, you should probably limit your description to half a page at most before you bring in some sort of action.
Pull Them In With Action
A common phrase you hear at writer’s conferences is that you need to open with action. I agree that action should towards the beginning of your book, but I don’t think it needs to be in the first sentence, or even the first paragraph.
Sometimes when writers open their book with an action sequence, it can be hard to ground the reader in the story and the characters. For example, if your book starts with a chase scene, you need to make it clear who your character is and why he’s being chased pretty early on, or else the reader won’t become invested in whether or not he gets away. I’ll see chase scenes where the author withholds these details in hopes of creating more intrigue, and this works for maybe a paragraph, but at a certain point a reader’s curiosity turns into confusion, and then confusion becomes disinterest and you’ve lost the reader’s attention.
So if you do decide to open with an action sequence, make sure you sprinkle in some of the who and why before you’re a third of the way down the first page. There’s only so long you can keep a reader in suspense before they begin to lose interest, and I think a third of a page is good ballpark to keep in mind.
The other thing to bear in mind, is that opening with action doesn’t have to be something as dramatic as a chase scene or an explosion. Action can be something as simple as a person washing the dishes as long as you intrigue the reader in some way, like: “Emily was washing the dishes, scouring the blood from her favorite pan.” You wonder: Why is there blood on her pan? She could’ve been cooking a steak, or she could’ve been doing something infinitely creepier, and the uncertainty hooks your interest: you want to find out why there’s blood on her pan and where it came from.
And as always, make sure you establish the voice and point of view of your narrator. And if you can, throw in some vivid imagery that describes an idea or image in a way I’ve never read before.
Pull Them In With Dialogue
To me, dialogue is even trickier to open with than action. It’s similar to opening with action in the sense that having a conversation is a type of action. And like a chase scene, if you have a whole bunch of dialogue without any grounding in the characters or the story, it can feel meaningless. I think the best dialogue openings use dialogue as the opening sentence, then have a short paragraph of narration that establishes the characters and the situation, before continuing with the dialogue. I also suggest authors use dialogue tags, and intersperse narration in between lines of dialogue to further ground the reader. And if the dialogue is surprising in some way, either hilariously funny or emotionally stirring, you’ve accomplished the third criteria.