• Play to your strengths.
• Begin with a secondary conflict.
• Show the character being proactive.
• Prologues can help.
• Above all, DO NOT BE BORING.
The beginning of a book is the most important part of a book. If the beginning is boring, people aren’t going to read it. They’ll never make it to the really cool and awesome stuff you wrote later on. Also, you typically submit the first few pages or chapters of the novel when querying, so not only will potential readers judge your work by your beginning, agents, publicists, and publishers will as well.
Play to Your Strengths
This may be obvious, but the best beginning will probably be aligned with one of your writing strengths. Do you write action well? Start with action. Do you have an amazing setting? Start there. Do you have great dialogue, great characters, a great magic system, a unique concept, etc.? Use those. If it’s really your strength, it’ll substantially help draw readers in. An important caveat here, is you have to first learn what your strengths are. Beta readers and writers’ group can highlight what strengths you have.
Add a Prologue
I realize prologues are controversial but I like them. If they’re boring, I can skip them. But sometimes, they’re great. For instance, a prologue can make a promise of what’s to come. A good prologue can signal the reader of what’s ahead and keep them reading just to see the point where the prologue’s promises are fulfilled. An example of this is Twilight, which begins with Bella narrating how she’s going to die. It’s a scene that promised me something interesting was going to happen to the main character in the future, so I read looking forward to this scene. When it finally happened, it had a great payoff, making the prologue work.
Prologues don’t just need to happen in the future. They can showcase the villain, show an important battle in the past, teach us about the magic system or some major conflict, and set the book up for the future.
Start with a Secondary Main Conflict
I heard the formalized version of this from J. Scott Savage, who I saw at a Comic Con panel in SLC. He taught that many beginnings have a secondary conflict, something that’s important to the main character but not necessarily essential to the main plot. This secondary conflict can cover a fourth of the novel.
For instance, with The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, the book starts out with planning Bilbo’s birthday party. It has nothing to do with the main plot, but it sets the book up nicely, introduces characters, and shows some conflict between the protagonist and the world. Almost every James Bond film starts with an action scene that’s usually not related to the overarching plot. Mistborn starts with the protagonist thief trying to pull off a high-stakes job. In all these, there is a secondary conflict that introduces the characters and eventually intersects with the main plot.
I was struggling to revise a beginning of one of my novels, and I decided to look at some of my favorite authors for ways to get started. This can be a great exercise for anyone who wants to learn from their favorite authors. I’ll list of few of the books I analyzed and the ways they got started, bolding the unique techniques they used (which I added to my playlist for beginnings).
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (fantasy book in an alternative world). It starts with a prologue from an unrelated point of view character (a minor villain) and immediately dives into the interesting setting. Describing the ash falling from the sky as a normal thing immediately drew me into the world, making me wonder why it happened. When we meet the main character, Vin, she is busy trying to get a con done with her gang. That’s a secondary conflict that doesn’t entirely relate to the main plot in the book. It also shows Vin being proactive and not reactive. We also get glimpses into her mindset.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (fantasy book in an alternative world). While Sanderson has specifically said this beginning wouldn’t be appropriate for new writers, it still shows a variety of techniques (just don’t use all of them at once like he did-). The prologue starts with an enormous amount of mythology and lore that takes place after an ancient battle. The next chapter is a great action scene of an assassination that sets up one of the magic systems (annoyingly though, we don’t see this magic system again until half the book is over). His third introduction is an unimportant POV character who dies during the chapter but we get to see the main character through this character’s eyes.
Hard Magic by Larry Correia (alternate history: magic during the prohibition era in the United States). Correia starts off with interesting quotes from famous people (in real history) commenting on the sudden appearance of magic. That immediately brings in the setting and establishes parts of the magic system. His prologue also has a neat villain-setting-up-something-evil, which can be really enjoyable. And again, a prologue like this can be a great promise of what’s to come later in the novel. We then turn to one of the main character (Jake Sullivan) who has an initial secondary conflict-tracking down magic criminals in exchange for his early prison release-which leads directly into the main plot (one of the criminals is an old friend and happens to be recruited by a secret society).
Red Rising by Pierce Brown (dystopian science-fiction). The prologue starts in the future which gives readers something to look forward to, similar to Twilight. Brown then goes in depth setting/cultural/enslavement which helped draw me in because of its uniqueness (different classes of humans have genetically different skin color and positions such as red for miners, pinks for pleasure-workers, grays for fighters, etc.).
I’ll forebear from the other books I analyzed but here are some of my finalized playlist solutions for bad beginnings:
• Add a prologue that sets up something ominous.
• Play to strengths: write great action, dialogue, etc.
• Show characters being proactive and having immediate goals even they’re not related to the main plot.
• Establish unique setting.
• Try another POV looking at one of the main characters.
• Try a beginning from the villain’s POV.
• Have an important secondary conflict that’s related or unrelated to the main plot.
• Start the book in the future so the reader has something to look forward to.
There are lots of different ways to begin a book, as evidenced in the books I’ve listed. For me, beginnings are still something I struggle with, especially because of how important they are to selling to readers and agents/publishers. But what about you? What have you found that works in your own writing or in other authors’ books that have strong, interesting beginnings?