They call it “hooking the reader” and it’s the goal of the opening of any book, whether fiction or nonfiction: Start out with something that makes the reader want to read more, and do it quickly. Grab the reader’s interest, and draw him into the story. It helps to be assertive, terse rather than burdened by lengthy explanations, and omit flowery adjectives and adverbs. You can start with a promise of what is to come, some sort of conflict, or – better yet – a question, something a bit mysterious.
Dialogue often works because it tends to be inconclusive – opening up a mystery (What are they talking about?) rather than solving it. Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster begins this way: “You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?” Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her, waiting for a response.
Sometimes starting with an extremely dramatic scene shocks the reader into paying attention. “Just moments after the shots,” Simon Shebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter begins, “as Serafina looks at the bodies of her school friends, a feathery whiteness is already frosting their blasted flesh.”
Understated drama works well too. Take the opening of Kent Haruf’s Benediction, for example: When the test came back and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down. They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.
You can provoke. You can hint. You can introduce a character. You can introduce conflict. You can start with a compelling scene. No matter how you start, something should happen. And, of course, adhere to the golden rule: Show, don’t tell. Let the reader witness something, rather than read an explanation of who what when and where.
There are some things you might want to avoid. Go for sparse rather than a cluttering of descriptions (Her soft blond hair, dangled long and lush over blue eyes the color of a cold winter sky) . Omit the back story; don’t explain what happened earlier in order to get to where we are. Better to start where we are and have the reader wonder how we got there. Better to start with a moving plot than with a prologue. Better to start with a happening than a dream sequence we read all the way through, only to discover it didn’t really happen. Avoid cliche openings. Readers of crime novels get a bit tired of discovering a detective awakening with a dreadful hangover in the opening pages.
Are you stressed out enough about how to concoct the perfect beginning yet?
Here’s the good news! You can have dessert before the main course. You do not have to begin your manuscript by writing the perfect beginning: you can end by doing so! There’s no law that says you have to hook the reader before you can move on to the rest of your story, and, in fact, seeking perfection can pose a huge stumbling block. Instead of concentrating on making it brilliant when you’re starting out, just concentrate on getting it done, and moving on, e\specially if you are a first time writer. Writing is one of those skills that you get better at as you go along. It’s fairly common for someone to finish a book and look back at the beginning, and say “What was I thinking?”… and rewrite it. And it’s also common for a writer to start out with a dreadful beginning but have thought of a much better one by the time he writes the last sentence.