Read the following:
- “My alarm went off at 7:30 a.m. I yawned, got out of bed, walked to the bathroom, and started to brush my teeth. I was so excited to see Taylor Swift in concert tonight!’Jess, come downstairs! I have something important to tell you,’ I heard Mama shout from the kitchen.”
- “The night Taylor Swift fell from the stage was the same night Mama told me I was adopted, and I’m not sure what broke my heart more.”
If you picked up a book in a bookstore and it had one of these bullet points as a first sentence/paragraph, which would you be more inclined to buy and read? Which would you be more interested in?
I, for one, would definitely be more interested in the book that starts off with the second bullet point. It catches my attention, it starts off with rising action, and it makes me want to read more.
The second shoptalk meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators I attended at my local Barnes & Noble was hosted by Rob Costello, a representative from the Highlights Foundation (an organization that holds workshops for children’s book authors and illustrators — check out their website to learn more!) and a young adult fiction writer. He focused the shoptalk specifically on the importance of a good novel opening, and on the dos and don’ts of how to write one.
Good openings to novels help make what you’re writing appeal to readers. Generally speaking, if the first page/line doesn’t grab the reader’s attention, you’ve lost 50% of your potential audience. Former literary agent Leslie Daniels says that if the first line doesn’t grab her, the manuscript goes back in the pile (which is kind of depressing, if you ask me).
That being said, the main job of a book’s opening is to hook the reader. And openings are really hard to get right! You have to include information about background and characters that seem critically relevant and necessary to explain, all the while maintaining the reader’s interest.
There are two types of openings that Mr. Costello warned us not to start with:
- Data Dump Opening— when you overwhelm the reader with facts about your protagonist that don’t really matter. Example: Describing the physicality of your main character right off the bat isn’t all that interesting.
- Steady State Opening— when you provide background information/set up the scene before inciting an incident. Normal life isn’t interesting! And it’s no way to hook a reader.
Mr. Costello also warned us not to begin with dialogue or backstory or a dream or a prologue.
He also warned us that many people (including him) will tell you not to begin with dialogue or backstory or a dream or a prologue, but that these rules don’t apply to everything. If you demonstrate sufficient skills as a writer and hook the reader, anything you write can work.
Something that always works is dissonance.
In the music world, dissonance means “a lack of harmony among musical notes.” In the literary world (and otherwise), dissonance means “a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.” It can be anything that’s counterintuitive, unsettling, contradictory– elements that grab the reader’s attention and force them to engage and ask questions
Dissonance works in novel openings because it disrupts the flow of the reader’s expectations in shocking ways. Taylor Swift fell off the stage at a concert and a protagonist’s mother telling her she’s adopted are two dissonant plot elements that clash and catch the reader’s attention, making them want to read more.
The easiest way to create dissonance in your opening is to begin with action. If you have action, there’s conflict. You can also create dissonance through setting, mood, and voice/tone. Anything that contradicts itself and grabs your reader’s attention works, and once you’ve grabbed your reader’s attention, you can test their patience by providing more expository information.
I’ve always found beginnings to be one of the hardest things to write. I never know where to start or how to start or how to start in a way that will make what I’m trying to say matter. I think, ultimately, that two things you have to keep in mind are your story and your reader. How can you make what you’re trying to say matter to the person that you want to read it and engage with it?
Just some things to keep in mind.