Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Set up Your Story in the First Paragraphs

By Jodie Renner, @JodieRennerEd

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome back Jodie Renner to the blog today, to chat with us about that oh-so-important beginning, and offer tips on how your story can get off to a great start.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, specializing in thrillers and other crime fiction. Her craft-of-fiction articles appear here and on 5 other blogs. To find out more about Jodie’s services, please visit her website at

Take it away Jodie...

I receive several first chapters every week as submissions for possible editing, and I always read the first page. Some are clear and compelling and make me want to read more. But too often, two main problems emerge: Either the author spends too much time revving his engine with description or backstory before we even care (boring); or we’re plunged right into the story but have no idea where we are or what’s going on (confusing).

There are three cardinal rules of successful novelists:
1. Don’t bore your reader!
2. Don’t confuse your reader!
3. Don’t annoy your reader!
I’ve discussed the negative effects of starting off too slow, with too much description and/or backstory, in other articles. Today, I’ll focus on the other problem that can turn readers off—fuzzy beginnings. Sometimes I feel confused and frustrated, wondering who this character is—and is it the main character, or someone else? Also, where the heck is she? And what’s she doing, exactly?It’s frustrating not being able to form a mental picture of who it is and what’s going on, right from the start.

Your first paragraph and first page are absolutely critical! Not only do they need to hook your reader in quickly, set the tone for the rest of the book, and “show your stuff” in regards to your writing style, but the reader needs to know right away whose story it is and where and when it’s taking place, so they can get situated, then relax and start enjoying the story. If they have a lot of questions, they’re going to start getting frustrated and may put down your book by the end of the first page or two. Readers want to be able to get into a good story right away, not have to spend the first several pages—or more—trying to figure out what’s going on.

So try to work in the basics of the 4 W’s below in your first page—preferably within the first two or three paragraphs. Give the readers a quick snapshot of who, what, where and when, without going in to a great deal of detail yet. Give them just enough to get oriented so they’re not totally confused and can start enjoying the story.

Who? Whose story is it? Your protagonist should appear in the first paragraph; better yet, in the first sentence—in his/her point of view, of course! Don’t start out with someone else, then introduce your main character in chapter two, or even later in chapter one. Readers will have started emotionally investing in someone else who may be a minor character, then be disappointed and annoyed when they find out they’re not the person they’re supposed to be caring about!

What? What’s going on? What is he/she doing, exactly? Can the reader visualize the situation? If not, add a few details.

Where? Where is he/she? Overall setting—country, state/province, city/town; and if inside, inside where? An office building? A log cabin?At home? Which room? It can be really annoying for a reader to start reading dialogue and have no idea where the speakers are.

When? Is this story taking place in the present? The past? How far in the past? What season? What month? In the morning? Afternoon? Evening? Middle of the night?

Also, your first page is a kind of promise to your readers. Readers want to get a feel quickly for your writing style and the genre or your handling of the genre, so be sure that your first page reflects the overall tone, style, and voice of the novel, and even hints at aspects like the level of violence they can expect, etc. Then keep your promise by delivering for the rest of the novel!

Just as I was about to post this short article based on my own experiences reading, judging and editing fiction, I received the latest issue of Writer’s Digest magazine (March 2012), and serendipitously, noticed Steven James’ article, “5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make.” In a sidebar, James discusses writing an effective first sentence, paragraph and page. His fifth point expresses my focus for this article.

Evaluate Your Hook: 

With each story you start, always remember that an effective hook needs to do seven things:
1. Grab the readers’ attention
2. Introduce a character readers care about.
3. Set the story’s mood.
4. Establish the storyteller’s voice.
5. Orient readers to the world of the protagonist (and enable them to picture it).
6. Lock in the genre.
7. End in a way that is both surprising and satisfying.


  1. Thanks for hosting me again today on your excellent blog, Janice!

  2. Great post and will certainly think about this with my opening!

  3. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment, Vik. I hope my tips help make your opening more compelling and powerful.

  4. ANother good one. I am way behind on reading your blog! Yikes!

  5. Yes, Janice does have such an excellent blog, doesn't she, Carol! I'm pleased to be back for another visit!

  6. Very good points. Thanks Jodie and Janice!

  7. Thanks for providing a different perspective on the opening- the Four W's. I'll use that to evaluate my openings from a fresh angle.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Amelia and ChiTrader. I hope these tips help amp up your openings and suck the readers in!

  9. Hi Jodie! Thanks so much for sharing your expertise! I was wondering how you felt about prologues in a romantic suspense that are in the POV of the victim or suspect. The main protagonist may not be introduced--how would you recommend the scene be approached?

  10. Kym, agents and acquiring editors don't much like prologues, mainly because a lot of readers skip them. But quite a few suspense novels do start with a prologue in the POV of the killer or victim, so if you really want to do that, go for it! But then start Ch. 1 in the POV of your protagonist, and best to stay there for the whole chapter, so the readers can get to know him/her well, and start to bond with them.

  11. Thanks Jodie! I appreciate you being here today!

  12. I'm struggling with my opening now. Thanks so much for the great advice.

  13. You're welcome, Julie. Glad to be of assistance. Good luck with your story!

  14. Replies
    1. Thanks, Kathleen. Glad you find my tips useful. :-)