Today's guest post was written by Kerbie Addis.
For many writers, creating a powerful beginning is a daunting task. Convincing a reader to stick around for the next twenty or thirty chapters seems almost impossible, but luckily there’s advice out there for writers:
While these familiar fishing metaphors act as guides for creating strong beginnings, they are sometimes used incorrectly. A car exploding on page one might be exciting, but we won’t have a reason to care. Opening with a graphic scene might shock the reader into paying attention, but attention wanes after several pages lacking plot. While we’re told to “hook” and “bait” readers, shoving bait in a fish’s face will only scare it away.
To expound on the fishing analogy, I’d like to introduce the technique of reeling in. This relies on a necessary component for novelists - the inciting incident.
The inciting incident, as many writers know, is the crucial moment that begins the story’s conflict. In Harry Potter, for example, the inciting incident is Harry’s acceptance to Hogwarts. In Legally Blonde, the inciting incident is Elle being dumped by her boyfriend. In order to create a powerful beginning for your novel, you first have to identify the inciting incident.
Once you’ve identified the inciting incident, reel it in. But how far back should you reel in? Developing appropriate distance between page one and the inciting incident takes practice and experimentation. However, the reader will need time to establish the world and time to care about the main character.
Establishing the world isn’t just for fantasy and science fiction, where worldbuilding is a must. If the inciting incident shatters your character’s life and changes everything, we have to know what this means for them. For the reader, you must establish the status quo in order to destroy it. If the turning point for your protagonist is finding a dead body, don’t begin with that. Show us a world where this sort of thing shouldn’t happen - or maybe it’s a world where it’s all too common.
What is your protagonist doing beforehand? Give us a character to empathize with so we feel their disgust and horror at stumbling across a stiff. Would this change them? Is this just another day for them? We need a feel for your character’s personality before having them thrown into a horrifying or action-packed scene.
This isn’t to say you should start your novel with a character staring into a cup of coffee, in deep introspection. Once you have a fish on the hook, you must keep tension in the line. In other words, once you draw a reader in, you have to keep things tense and interesting to keep them engaged. Even if you begin with nothing exciting, give us the promise that something exciting will happen very soon.
Hook us with your first few pages. Use the first chapter as bait to draw us in.
These bits of wisdom are good advice - when explained properly. Baited hooks are a game of patience, requiring the fisherman to try different fishing spots and proper technique by reeling in with a tight line. In writing, you may need several attempts to find just the right starting point for your story. But with practice, you can find a proper balance that will leave readers begging for the next page.
Kerbie Addis writes young adult speculative fiction. She is currently a college student and works as a reference assistant in her university library. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor and amateur video game theorist.