The beginning of a book should immerse us in your world right away. Don’t be coy about it, and don’t be disingenuous, either. Tell us what we need to know to make sense of things. Use plenty of detail. We want to get a nice feel for the setting, and we want to be as impressed by your characters as we are by meeting people in real life. When I say impressed, I don’t mean we should think they are great. I mean they should literally impress themselves upon us, through all the senses (except, perhaps, taste).
Your beginning should also give us the sense that we are on a journey. We don’t need to know where just yet, although we should know before page 50 or so… say, about three chapters in. This is usually the amount of pages an agent or editor will ask to read when they are trying to make up their mind about a book. The reason for this is simple: if your beginning hasn’t hooked them, it probably won’t hook other readers either, and they will put the book down and move on.
Many people will tell you that you need to be even more immediate with your grasp, and that your very first paragraph needs to be arresting, amazing, startling, and unlike anything anyone has ever read before. That’s a pretty tall order. While I am all in favor of strong writing, I have to say that this particular approach to fiction strikes me as something that has evolved in order to compete with film and television. Books were never meant to do this. Novels are for people who are in it for both the journey and the destination, and they’re in no hurry; it’s not necessary to begin your tale with dramatic action in order to hook us. Hook us, certainly. But there is nothing wrong with a book that unfolds gradually, as opposed to one that begins with an explosion, and leaves us to watch the fallout for the next three or four hundred pages.
Learn more about William Kowalski at https://www.williamkowalski.com
Read Will’s followup article: Middles.
Check out his previous article: Beginnings, Middles and Endings.