How to begin writing your book: openings that hook readers’ attention

All good books start with a murder. While that probably isn’t the golden rule of writing, for many types of novel, beginning with murder, death or at least the threat of it is a must. In a mystery, the murder happens first and the detectives have to sort it out. In a thriller, the murder is what starts the plot rolling and gets the main characters invested. Even if the murder never happens, it’s important to start off by referring to it. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight begin:

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”

Writing a thrilling or grabbing entry to your novel is important; even if you have to restructure, or start with the end in sight, to do it. The most important thing to remember is that reader’s have to know what’s at stake. (If Twilight had started with a girl moving to a new town, many readers would have gotten bored.)

I read a couple of indie thrillers this week with fantastic openings. The first is “The Abbey” by Chris Culver. It starts off with a murder and a few interesting vampire references. It’s a very strong book and held my interest. Here’s the opening:

I hated doing next of kin notifications. Most people guessed why I was there as soon as they opened the door. They put on airs of fortitude and strength, but almost all fell apart in front of me.

The next was “30 pieces of silver” by Carolyn McCray. McCray’s opening was stunning: read it over to see how a good opening should go. She starts with a terrorist event at a famous landmark, then cuts to her two main characters meeting as one is almost sacrificed to a giant snake in the jungle. It’s huge, shocking, larger than life… the novel as a whole failed to carry itself however, but the opening was a success. Actually, 30 Pieces of Silver had three openings. The first was a clip from the times of Jesus (some of the story is set in that period, describing things through the eyes of an apostle). The second is the beginning of the terrorist bombing – but instead of starting with the action, McCray starts with a fight between tourists that leads to the bombing:

“I told you the Louvre wasn’t open late on Tuesdays!” Corey ignored Kika’s outburst as the bus rattled along, following its route along the “I told you the Louvre wasn’t open late on Tuesdays!” Corey ignored Kika’s outburst as the bus rattled along, following its route along the Seine. This was not how he imagined their great European adventure. Sex, scenery, and some more sex. That was the plan. When did the hysterical nagging figure in?

This is very smart: whenever you show a big event, storm, bomb, etc, you don’t just want to say “people screamed and died”. You want to show real people, with personalities, desires and conflicts, so that we feel the effect of the incident. Next, after these 2 scenes, McCray leads with her main character:

Dr. Rebecca Monroe gasped in the moist rain forest air. It took the effort of breathing underwater. Of course, the vine wrapped around her neck wasn’t helping matters, either.

If your main story, main introduction of the hero or heroine is boring (and for most books, it will be) lead with something else!

Things to remember:

1. Show what’s at stake

2. Set the stage by revealing what’s real

3. Show the danger/violence in the beginning.

In Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology, the story is mostly about her protagonists (a male researcher and a nun) going through library books for the first 100pages or so. Instead of leading with that, she sets the stage by showing – in just half a page – some angelologists in a cave looking at a real angel’s body. This lets readers know that the story is about real angels that actually exist, which makes all the other introductory stuff enjoyable because we want to see where it leads to.

In my own novel, “On Earth”, the real story begins slowly with the protagonist getting magical powers and growing into a powerful figure; but readers don’t know what’s going on or what’s at stake, or who he’s up against. That’s why it’s important to show the antagonists much earlier than they actually appear in the book. I have two ways to do that. The first is: a professor is decoding an ancient astrological machine that was found by divers in Greece. It’s 2,000 years old and if you set the date to 12/21/2012, a secret message appears by lining up all the gears. He’s excited about the discovery and preparing to send a press release, when a priest comes and kills him – then drinks the blood so it doesn’t go to waste. (Let’s you know: there are vampire priests in the book, they don’t want people to find out about the coming end of the world).

The second is: My protagonist, as a kid, gets up late because he’s excited – his parents told him they were moving. But someone comes in late at night, stops his parents and kills them. He overhears a discussion about “prophecy”, “the child”, “needs to be protected” “fulfill his destiny” etc. He is to young to remember this, but later when we introduce him to readers, the readers already know what’s coming. I’ve already set the stage (this is a paranormal fantasy, etc). So they won’t be surprised when magical things happen or when vampire priests jump out.

I’ll probably end up using both of these intro’s together.

A tip from Camus (if you don’t know who he is, read “the Stranger” for one of the best books ever written):

All great works and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door.” — Albert Camus

What’s your perfect or favorite intro? Share it!

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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