Great Story Starts

Is the focus of the novel revealed early? This question is at the top of contract evaluations I do for a publisher. Most of the time, I check No. Writers often move slowly in the beginning. They set up backstory and craft detailed irrelevant scenes. Two chapters later, I still don’t know what the premise is. The best stories jump right in and reveal what the character wants and/or what the character is up against to get what he wants.

Revealing the focus can be indirect. In a coming-of-age story I just evaluated, the first page opened with a mother having a confrontation with a customs inspector, as seen through her daughter’s eyes. It was clear the story would be about the family’s immigration and the daughter’s confrontations with her mother and her struggle to become independent. The scene was also filled with tension and did a great job of characterizing the mother. I was captivated (and I don’t usually read coming-of-age stories).

Start your story in the middle of a situation. Write a scene with dialogue, action, conflict, and/or yearning. Let the reader know what your story is about. You can always go back later and fill in background information.

What’s your favorite opening scene in a novel you’re read recently?

2 Comments
  1. The two that jump to mind are notable for both their opening lines and their opening scenes. J.C. Hutchins’ book 7th Son opens with the line “The president is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a four-year-old boy.” That’s what happens in the first few pages. Another is J.A. Konrath’s The List. It starts with a wise-ass opening line from a cop investigating a murder “I found the head.” But the reasonably short first chapter winds up withe the discovery of a tiny tattoo on the corpse’s foot and the revelation that the lead detective has a similar one.

    I think you touched on the key – the beginning needs to give the first clues to the conflict in the story. I’ve read a lot of books that start with action – a violent murder or whatever – but they don’t leave you with really specific questions you want answered in the rest of the book. When done well, I also tend to like books that start with something that happens chronologically near the end of the book and then goes back and builds towards that.

  2. You are so to the point. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

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