Thanks to iPhone downloads, ebooks are competing directly with movies as on-demand entertainment. That means that the opening pages of your novel have to be more clever than ever if you want to sell your book.
I just finished judging a commercial fiction contest for aspiring authors. Without exception, the entries had the same problem. The first Chapter opened with a whimper, and Page Two quickly bogged down in backstory -- in some cases, 45 pages worth of backstory!
George Lucas wouldn’t wait 4 pages (much less 45) to make something happen in his screenplays! And neither should you.
As a contest judge – and as a fiction-writing coach, who has been helping aspiring authors for 12 years – I see an overwhelming amount of manuscripts that open in the wrong chronological place in the story. Aspiring authors don’t seem to recognize the difference between backstory and action. (Backstory is the character’s past. “Action” is the forward motion of the plot.)
Curiously, the manuscripts that I see often demonstrate an understanding of the “hook-the-reader” concept in Paragraph One, but many authors don’t have a clue how to build that momentum beyond Page Two.
To help you get past the Page-Two hurdle, here are 10 writing tips that will open your novel with a bang:
Turn your Literary Hook into a short and sassy, one-line paragraph. (Example: "The last time Fancy Holleday robbed a train, she did it in her bloomers." ~ TEXAS OUTLAW) Alternatively, give your multi-sentence hook an emotional punch. (Example: "He loved her. That’s why she’d be safer walled up in a convent. Or an island fortress. Or anywhere that he couldn’t get his hands on her.")
Keep your Literary Hook relevant to your opening pages. I can't TELL you how many times I've read a great hook that has nothing to do with the action in Scene One.
Open Scene One five minutes before the character’s life is about to change forever. Let the reader know – briefly! – what is at stake for the character and why the reader should care, before you threaten what the protagonist holds dear.
Limit your story set-up to six pages. Be sure those pages are double-darn interesting (add humor, suspense, foreshadowing, etc.) While veteran authors often take longer than six pages to set up a novel, they have a loyal audience. You’re trying to build yours.
Write the opening from the viewpoint of the character who has the most to lose. (This tip applies to novels, like Romances, that have more than one protagonist.) In other words, write from the POV of the character who is the most emotionally vulnerable.
Reveal the viewpoint character’s name and gender in the top half of Page One – yes, even if you’re writing in First Person.
Make your viewpoint character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts evident on Page One. Weave them into the fabric of the scene, starting with your Literary Hook.
Limit the parade of secondary characters. Too many character introductions will trip up your reader, especially if you haven’t done your job of giving those characters three dimensions (goals, motivations, and conflicts.) How many characters become “too many?” That depends on the skill of the writer. On the first page, I suggest limiting character introductions to two. Later in the scene, you can judiciously add a few more secondary characters, as long as you start to develop those characters AND you show how they serve as catalysts for the plot.
Write cliffhanger endings for the first three Chapters. These Chapters are often submitted to agents and editors for book proposals. Online retailers are likely to post Chapters 1-3 as excerpts (depending on the length of your novel.) For all these reasons, your first three Chapters need to grab a reader by the throat and never let go!
Do your market research before you write a single line! Understand the difference between commercial, mainstream, and literary fiction. Target your writing style / story development accordingly. (I can’t TELL you how many times writers claim that they are writing a Romance – and yet the story has little to do with a love relationship.) Indie Authors: if you label your book “Contemporary Romance,” or “Cozy Mystery,” or “Epic Fantasy,” then your book should follow the tropes that are expected in those sub-genres. Otherwise, you’ll get some REALLY nasty reviews from disappointed customers.