It’s an oversimplification, but also very much a truism, to suggest that starting a story is difficult. That’s why we’ve devoted an entire four-part series to the challenge of how best to do it. In the last three installments (click here to read Part 1), we’ve discussed establishing momentum and avoiding exposition in the opening pages, and what to do and what to avoid in crafting the opening sentence. These tools are fundamental in capturing the reader from the beginning.
But you’re not just beginning a story. You’re beginning your story.
What does that mean? What’s the difference?
What I mean is that just because the opening chapter of a manuscript captures a reader doesn’t necessarily mean it sets up effectively the story to come. Just because a first-sentence hook is razor-sharp doesn’t mean it establishes the right tone. It’s entirely possible for an opening chapter to be simultaneously excellent and entirely wrong for the novel you’re writing. As a book editor, I’ve seen it happen many times.
So in this final installment in our series on the opening pages, we’re going to look at some of the pitfalls that can make even a well-written beginning an ineffective introduction to your manuscript.
[Missed the previous posts in this series? Start here.]
Setting Readers’ Expectations
The Hunger Games is well-regarded as a great contemporary work of young adult dystopian fiction. But suppose author Suzanne Collins had pitched it to publishers instead as a math textbook.
It’s an exciting and imaginative YA novel, sure. But it teaches you very little about long division. As a math textbook, it would be a near-instant rejection.
That’s a silly example, but it speaks to the point that if you sell readers one thing and deliver another, you’re likely to receive some negative reactions regardless of the actual quality of your writing. Recently, I edited a novel that presented a straightforward Victorian-era drama not only through the first chapter but in fact through the first several chapters. Readers invested in the grounded real-world drama were likely to find it jarring when the arrival of a supernatural being revealed a fantasy novel set primarily in a fantasy world. Yet readers anticipating a fantasy could well be turned away by a story that took an inordinate amount of time even to hint at its genre.
It’s not only about genre. A solemn opening chapter may not represent effectively a consistently lighthearted novel and vice versa. One of the goals of your opening pages is to set up the story to come. If your opening pages seem to set up an altogether different story, whether in genre, subject, style, or tone, then even if you hook your reader from the start, you may also be setting them up for disappointment down the line. They may even feel deceived—a turnoff for many readers, regardless of the quality of the writing.
Sometimes genre and tone may be spot on, but the specific scene with which you open the manuscript proves unimportant to the story to come. Another manuscript I edited recently opened with a scene from the protagonist’s childhood about a treasure she found. The rest of the story was set during the protagonist’s present day, and the treasure never actually became relevant to the narrative or the character. Still another recent project highlighted a character who would never appear or be mentioned again.
It’s not even true only of fiction. I worked on a memoir that opened with a chess tournament. Chess was deeply relevant to the narrative, but this particular match and this particular tournament were not. In time the scene proved unnecessary.
The notion of this happening in time is important. Opening pages without narrative relevance can be difficult to spot in the moment for authors and readers. For readers, it’s impossible to determine whether a scene is important when you don’t yet know the nature of the story. For authors, the story changes so much during the writing process that what seemed important early in the process turns out not to be later on. A well-written scene is still going to capture readers, but a well-written scene also raises questions specific to that scene. The more time that passes without addressing those questions, the more dissatisfied readers will become. So an opening scene without narrative relevance creates significant problems down the road.
Point of View
Another novel I edited years ago had a different problem. While the vast majority of the novel was written primarily from a single point of view, the first six chapters presented six different points of view. The writing through all six early chapters was perfectly good, but by the end of them readers would have been thoroughly confused trying to determine what story, and whose story, they were actually reading.
In a novel or memoir—any story, really—point of view is a tool of focus. So a manuscript that begins with too many points of view—whether in multiple chapters or in a single chapter—is out of focus. That makes it more difficult to invest in a specific character, or even to know who the protagonist is meant to be. Readers are then left confused rather than compelled to explore the narrative to come.
So how do you ensure you set readers’ expectations, keep things relevant, and maintain a focused start to your novel? Here are some tips:
- When you reach the end of the draft, go back and reread the beginning. Does it still fit the story you wound up writing?
- Seek out a beta reader to read the first chapter alone. What impressions are they left with? An outsider’s perspective can help nail down what you’re communicating and how it differs from your intentions.
- Does the first chapter reveal too much? Consider if any future plot points might be in any way spoiled by the content of the opening pages.
The more you know about your own manuscript, the better able you are to catch the ways in which your opening pages are or are not effective in introducing readers to the story you mean to tell. So go back, take your time, and ensure that the opening pages are not only compelling and well-written but also the right start for your work.
What’s the biggest change you’ve ever made to your opening pages after completing a draft? Let us know in the comments below!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.