Openings are critical to get someone to read your book, but how do you know where to start? The old "start with the action" has frustrated many a writer due to its ambiguity, and even when you think you've done it all correctly, beta readers can still feel the opening isn't grabbing them. The sheer amount of "is this opening working?" submissions I get in Real Life Diagnostics is testament to that. Openings are hard, especially if you're not sure if you're starting in the right place.
I've talked about first lines and first pages before, so today, let's focus on figuring out where to start your story, and how to diagnose it if you're worried you're starting in the wrong place.
First, analyze your current opening, either the first scene or the first chapter if it's only one scene:
Describe how the story opens in the first few pages:
You want to hit the basic overview to determine what you're writing about. If you start with description, internalization, action, etc. For example, if I described The Shifter, I'd say it opens with Nya musing on the difficulty of stealing eggs vs. chickens, then getting caught stealing those eggs.
State the goal in the opening scene:
Even though this scene may not have anything to do with your core conflict, your protagonist is trying to do something. For Nya, her goal is: Steal eggs for breakfast.
State your stakes:
No matter how small the goal, there's a consequence in failing. That's what makes readers want to keep reading. For Nya, it's getting caught stealing eggs.
Describe in one paragraph or less what happens next, up until the last page or two:
Keep it short to force yourself to really look at what's going on in that scene. For Nya, it's that she tries to talk her way out of the egg theft. She can't, so she runs for it. During her escape she's forced to use her pain shifting ability to get away.
Describe how the first scene or chapter ends:
Look at the event that's going to transition into the next scene or chapter. The "oh no" moment that will hook the reader. For Nya, it's that she gets caught shifting pain by people who will definitely expose her secret.
Now that you know the pieces of your own opening, step back and look at the story as a whole:
1. What is the core conflict of your novel?
This may seem like a strange question to ask about a beginning, but the beginning is all about getting your protagonist to this core conflict. If you don't know where they're going, it's harder to know where they start that journey. It's okay to do both the internal and external conflicts here if you want. For The Shifter, it's Nya trying to save her missing sister, and having to decide how far she's willing to go to do that.
2. When is the first moment where something happens to bring your protagonist into this core conflict? (your inciting event)
It can be small, and it can be something they don't even know connects to it yet, but there's a moment where if they turned left instead of right, they never would have had this thing happen to them. That moment when they made a choice or acted in a way that sets them on the plot path. For The Shifter, it's when Nya gets caught using her shifting ability.
3. What's happening when they trigger the moment when they step onto the plot path?
Stories typically start "in the real world" of your protagonist's life, so odds are your protagonist will be doing something normal that somehow doesn't go as it usually does. What normal part of their life are they doing when this big plot path moment occurs? In The Shifter, Nya is stealing food to survive.
4. How does this event connect to your core conflict?
There's a reason this moment puts your protagonist on that plot path. You can draw out a step by step list that shows how this event leads to the end of the book. What is that reason? In The Shifter, shifting pain exposes Nya to the two power groups of the city who want to use her and her abilities, and are the very people involved in her sister's disappearance.
Next, look at your opening analysis:
Is your opening the same as #2?
YES: Odds are you're starting in the right place.
NO: Odds are you're starting too early or too late in the story, so it's either dragging before it gets started, or starting so fast readers feel lost and can't connect to the protagonist to care about what's happening. (even if it's exciting).
Try rewriting the opening scene so it reflects the events in #2.
If this scene happens later is the story, consider starting the book there, even if you have to cut. (that information can always be moved)
If yes, but something still not working...
Look back at your opening analysis.
Is there anything there you didn't answer, or answered weakly? If so, this is likely the problem. If everything looks good but something is still off, look at...
The first few pages:
What is your protagonist doing on page one? Are they active in some way or is it more description or narrative that sets the scene? Trying making them active. Let them do something.
Opening scene goal:
Is this goal apparent from the first page, or is it a goal that actually appears later in the scene or chapter? Sometimes the protagonist is doing something unrelated at the start to set the scene, then the story gives them something to do several pages in, delaying the actual start of the book. Try putting the goal in right from the start and have it clear what the protagonist is doing.
Opening scene stakes:
Even if it's clear what your protagonist is doing, if no one cares if they succeed or not it's not very interesting. Are your stakes worth worrying about? Even a mundane scene can have meaningful stakes if the protagonist cares enough about the outcome. Not buying milk when you know it'll cause a huge fight with your spouse matters, even if it's just about milk. Stopping off for a latte that has no repercussions at all doesn't give readers a reason to stick around.
If you've hooked readers with your opening pages, are you following through with that promise? Just because you hooked them doesn't mean you can now step back and do all that description, backstory, and infodumping you cut out of the first few pages. You want to build off that hook and really make the reader invest in your characters and their story. Ask yourself...
- Does the chapter feel like it's going somewhere?
- Is there a mystery or story question the reader wants to see answered?
- Is there a suggestion that something is going to go wrong?
- Is there humor or examples of your protagonist exhibiting likable or interesting qualities?
- Do the stakes escalate?
- Does this middle connect the opening goal with the core conflict "first step on the path" goal?
The end of a scene is the payoff for reading that scene. Is the final hook something that the scene or chapter has been building toward? This is often the culprit in a "something's off" opening that starts where it should. The event is right, but the author is unsure how to get the protagonist from their day to day life to that plot event. You might consider looking at when your protagonist encounters that event, and seeing if they got there by their own actions or if it suddenly happened to them.
Things do happen unexpectedly, and some stories are about the protagonist getting a call that changes their whole world. If this is the case in your story, think about that opening and how the protagonist's day to day life lays the groundwork for that big unexpected moment. If things change, perhaps contrast the life to the change. Pick a goal that will be the most affected by that surprise so the unexpected does more than just pop up unexpectedly.
Openings can be ambiguous, and in some stories it's hard to know exactly where they start. But the closer you begin to the moment when things change for your protagonist, the faster you can get to the good stuff.
Have you ever struggled with where to start? If so, did you start too soon or too late? Or totally in the wrong place? How long did it take you to find the right spot? Did you find the right spot?