As a Pitch Wars mentor, I get some of the most wonderful emails from newer writers thanking me for so selflessly taking the time to critique their work. Now here’s my confession: it’s not so selfless. Having the opportunity to read so many WIP’s has taught me more about writing than any class or workshop I’ve ever attended. Why? Being required to pinpoint why or why not an opening chapter is working has given me a much greater understanding of how to grab a reader from the very first page.
The most common mistake I see among Pitch Wars submissions is not starting the story in a place that immediately engages readers. Many writers are hesitant to trust that readers will understand their characters’ dilemmas and motivations unless the story opens with a recounting of the events that has brought them to this point. Others are convinced if you don’t fully get to know a character’s interior life in the opening pages, a reader won’t stay tuned for the drama to follow. Then there are those who go to the other extreme: opening on a scene that keeps you guessing – and not in a good way.
So what is the right place? How do you know you’ve hit on that perfect moment that will compel your reader to keep turning pages? Here’s what I’ve discovered in the Pitch Wars slush pile:
I’ve heard agents say they dislike prologues, and now I understand why. Probably 20% of the submissions I received in my two years of mentoring had prologues, and apologies if you fall into this category, but pretty much all were unnecessary. In fact, I started playing a game of skipping the prologue and going right to the first chapter to see if it impacted my reading experience. The result was a more exciting and interesting read every single time.
“My readers will need the information presented in the prologue to understand what happens in the book,” I’ve heard writers argue. That may be, but too often prologues are used as an expedient way to info dump. I’m not saying every prologue is a waste of paper and ink, but in the YA world, which is where I dwell, I would encourage writers to dramatically weave that information into the main body of their novels if possible. If you do decide a prologue is necessary to best tell your story, please make sure it contributes to building conflict, stakes, and has a direct bearing on what’s about to befall your main character.
Starting Too Soon
How do you know if you are starting too soon? If any of these apply:
· * If nothing’s happening. I’ve seen opening chapters with main characters washing dishes while reflecting on their problems, or watching a parent cook dinner while reciting expository dialogue. If it is not significantly developing your character or furthering your plot, open with a different scene.
· * If the opening contains only backstory. Spending the first five pages catching us up on the MC’s problems is not the same as starting your story.
· * If there’s no goal, conflict, or inciting event. I once happened to have Kass Morgan’s THE 100 sitting on my desk when I was explaining this concept to a writer. The first line in the book is: The door slid open, and Clarke knew it was time to die. There is goal (Clarke wants to live) and conflict (someone is planning to kill her) all wrapped up in one killer sentence.
So Where Do You Start?
One tool I use to determine where to begin a story is to write a one or two page synopsis, the kind you will have to write anyway if you plan to query an agent. No matter how much outlining and advance planning I’ve done, the short synopsis is the best way I’ve discovered to insure I’ve structured a well-plotted story with satisfying conflicts and stakes that continue to build throughout the book. If the synopsis is boring, or the stakes aren’t well defined, or the story isn’t working for whatever reason, this is the time to fix the problem – not after you’ve written an entire manuscript.
A synopsis also tells me what the first dramatic event will be. It’s the moment from which all others will spring, and without it there would be no story. Your MC should be proactively pursuing a goal or involved in a conflict that will then be connected to the book’s main goals and conflicts. If my MC can’t authentically be engaged in either in the opening scene, then I know I’m starting in the wrong place.
Another approach is to see the first pages of your book as a film. Screenwriters often start a script with an "action opening," which generally refers to big, noisy, attention-grabbing scenes. I don’t necessarily start a book with explosions and car chases, but I often aim to put my MC in action from the very first page.
Polishing those opening pages to hook a reader or land your agent is challenging enough. By starting your story at the exact right place, you’re already one step closer to publishing success.
*** I'd love to hear about your technique for creating a gripping opener. Please find me on twitter: @kestrester.