Writing Craft

Engaging Readers from the First Sentence

Chapter 1- This is not a drill

Since most of my edits are first chapter shreddings, I see more opening pages than any other part of a WIP. After reading them, I’ve concluded that so many fail because writers are treating chapter one like a practice run. They iron out a setting, introduce the entire cast (complete with grocery list descriptions), and jot down some backstory so the real story can begin in chapter 2.

Too bad your reader has already abandoned you.

From the first sentence, every word in you MS must be part of the story

Yes, the story must begin with the first word of the first sentence, and it must leave everything that isn’t part of the story out. Do we want to hear about Goldilocks getting dressed that morning? No, it isn’t part of the story. What about the very dramatic argument the Three Pigs had about who was going to host the first dinner party? Unless the wolf’s missing invitation was the reason he went on a destructive bend, then no. It’s not important to the story. Stick to the plot.

Bad beginnings:

Opening lines need to be clean and concise. That means they need to have one (and only one) idea. The most common mistake I see in opening lines is the “kitchen sink” approach. Writers who try to put an entire paragraph into one sentence. Take the recent example:

The scent of fresh baked cookies hits my nose as I entered my best friend, Julie’s, bakery, The Cookie Brigade, making my stomach growl, while my brain simultaneously reminded me that I only have three more weeks to fit into my size 6 wedding dress.

Wow, we have one sensory element, a setting, two characters, and a conflict all smashed into one rambling mess of a sentence. Just no. Opening lines can’t do everything. Pick one idea, and then put the rest of the information into the following sentences.

Compare this to another submission

I never meant to kill my father.

This is a great opening line. It’s short, immediate, sets the tone, and introduces a conflict. Because it’s emotionally powerful, we don’t need to know where the MC is, what she’s wearing, or how many other people are in the room. We are intrigued. We want to know what happened, and we are willing to read on to find out.

Let’s go back to the original example and clean it up.

The scent of fresh baked cookies twists my stomach into a knot.

This is more effective as an opening. It focuses on a single idea: fresh baked cookies are a source of dread for our MC, and sets up the question: How could fresh baked cookies possibly be bad? The reader will have to continue to find out.

The answer to this question can, and probably should, be in the paragraph, but the opening line needs to give the reader a reason to continue. If you try to put the entire first paragraph in one sentence, the reader will have all the answers and there will be no reason to read more.

Don’t make your opening sentence a mouthful. Feed your reader a nice little bite.

Déjà vu

I’ve also noticed that too many books have exactly the same beginning.

  1. Waking up– For as many times as I’ve heard editors/agents scream about this, I’m surprised to get it as often as I do. I have seen this opening work for a story exactly twice in my entire life. Once was in “The Hunger Games” and the other was “The Metamorphosis” Unless you are Suzanne Collins of Franz Kafka, then I don’t recommend starting your story with waking up, and by extension, try not to end your chapter with your character falling asleep. Both are cliché
  2. Dreaming-Nothing annoys a reader more than feeling like she’s been duped. Even when writers send me the opening dream written in “hey this is a dream” italics, I spend the entire scene wondering if this has anything to do with the rest of the story. There are two problems with starting a story here. Problem one: it’s cliché. Problem two: dreams are passive activities. It takes away your MC’s ability to act, and that makes her boring. Effective MC’s must be the catalyst for their own stories. Don’t take away your MC’s ability to act.
  3. Coffee shops-I’m officially adding this to the list. I know all of you are spending your time writing in coffee shops, but that doesn’t mean your story has to begin in one. (Unless it’s an original twist, like there’s a zombie hoard outside. Blood and guts oozing down the window in the background while your MC is inside bitching about the Christmas cup.) If you can write that scene and make it work, do it, but if they’re just having a chat, find someplace else.
  4. First day at a new school-This one is for MG crowd. I feel like every third MS I see from this category starts here. Kids go other places, and why does your MC have to be the new kid? Can’t he have an adventure with kids he already knows?
  5. The festival-For those of you writing fantasy, don’t start your novel by telling me how excited your MC is to be going to the festival. In fact, skip the festival completely if the events aren’t altered by them. Orc attacks can happen on a regular Tuesday too. And if it’s a princess picking herbs before the festival where she must announce her forced betrothal then I am sending your pages straight to the bin.

Engaging readers from the first sentence is the goal of any opening line. Keeping that interest is the job of the first chapter. By avoiding rambling sentences and cliché openings, your story’s first impression will be much more effective, and hopefully, help keep your story from getting rejected on the first page.

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M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


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