When it comes to writing a novel, short story, or even a blog post, the first pages are critical. The first few sentences need to hook the reader in, making them eager to read more. Without this, you run the risk of turning off the reader. The danger is that they might put down the book and move on to something else. If in doubt as to the power of a strong opening, consider these iconic lines:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” –Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
How to write strong opening pages
Keep it interesting from the start
Your opening should be strong and interesting. It doesn’t need to be action-packed or filled with suspense to grab the reader’s attention and keep them reading. One way to do this is to start with a question or a statement that piques the reader’s curiosity. For example, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” makes the reader wonder what is going on. “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow” might cause the reader to question how he broke his arm and want to read what happens next.
Begin with strong imagery
Another way to hook readers is to start with a strong image or vivid description. This could be a description of a character, a setting, or an action. The key is to make it as detailed and evocative as possible. For example, “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun” (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). This description sets the scene by creating an image in the reader’s mind that draws them in.
Introduce a sense of urgency early on
You can also create a sense of urgency by starting with a problem or a conflict. This could be a character dealing with a personal issue or a group of characters facing a larger problem. For example, “’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” This opener establishes a problem that needs to be solved from the first page (a conflict exists because her father holding an axe is unusual occurrence), and it makes the reader want to find out what happens next.
Establish tone from the first page
A strong opening should also establish the tone of the story. You can do this by using specific words and phrases or introducing the characters. For example, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were” (Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind). This opener establishes that the story is about a popular and beautiful young woman, and her courtship is likely going to figure into it.
A strong opening is crucial if you want to hook readers from the first page. The first page contains some of the most important words of your novel. Don’t neglect the opportunity this valuable real estate presents. When it comes to grabbing and keeping your reader’s attention, take the time to carefully craft your opening pages.
Awesome article – I love that you broke down what made each of the examples effective – I’ve not seen that done before and that made it so useful. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Karen. So glad it was helpful.