Updated: Jul 4, 2021
The beginning of your story is important. It determines whether a reader is going to pick up your book and get invested in your world. You could have a phenomenal story from chapter two onward, but if you don’t capture the attention of your reader in your first chapter, no-one is going to read far enough to know that.
In this post I’m going to share 5 things you should be thinking about when starting your story to ensure your readers pick up your book.
1. Start close to the inciting incident!
The inciting incident is the moment in your story where something happens that changes your character’s life and sets their journey to the end of the book in motion. If you think about what you’re promising your readers in the blurb of your book (like a school for wizards, or a camp for demi gods, or a vampire romance, or a badboy love story) this exciting promise is going to be triggered by your inciting incident.
You’ll likely want to show a little bit of the character’s normal life before this event happens, but if you start too far before the inciting incident it can leave your reader twiddling their thumbs and wondering when the action is going to happen.
In my book Cupid’s Match the story is propelled into motion when Lila finds out that she has been ‘matched’ with Cupid. So I started the story with Lila walking into the Cupids Matchmaking Service to tell them to stop spamming her. This put her into a good place to be very quickly told that cupids are real and that she has a problematic match who is about to join her school!
To figure out what you’re inciting incident is, I recommend determining your main conflict before you start your story (i.e. what does your character have to do, what will get in their way, and what is the consequence of not overcoming it). When you have your conflict in mind, think about the position your character needs to be in for that conflict to be set into motion. Use your inciting incident to get your character into that place. I wrote a bit more about conflicts in this post.
2. Start with something interesting happening
While you’ll want to start just before your inciting incident and show a little bit of the character’s normal life before the inciting incident happens, we still want to show the reader something interesting! Reading about a character going about their daily routine is only interesting if their daily routine is interesting/different to what we expect.
So pick an interesting moment to plant your character (and the readers) in that gives us a chance to get to know your character, but isn’t tedious. You can do this by foreshadowing the inciting incident, putting a character in the middle of an interesting event, showing us some conflict that happens in their daily life, showing us something that’s normal to the character but is perhaps strange to us as the reader, etc.
In my upcoming urban fantasy, Devils Inc., the inciting incident is when Rachel accidentally signs her soul away by not reading he T&C of a free Wi-Fi service on a night out. The first chapter starts just before she heads out (giving a taste of her personality and her normal life), but she encounters a Bad(boy!) Omen, and we know she's about to arrive at the bar where she signs away her soul!
3. Beware of clichés!
If your book starts with the character’s alarm going off, or on a dark and stormy night, you might want to change it (unless you’re going to turn that cliché on its head somehow!). There are certain openings that readers, agents, and publishers have seen time and time again.
Stand out from those by avoiding clichés.
4. Be concise in your opening!
Try to avoid overly wordy opening sentences. Your first paragraph is an invitation to the reader to come with you on a journey to the end of the book. Don’t scare them away by long wordy openings with lots of punctuation and complex vocabulary!
Keep your opening hooky by saying exactly what you need to say without rambling. Don’t worry about cramming everything into that first paragraph. Often less is more. Which leads to my final point. . .
5. Beware of info-dumping!
Sometimes we want to immediately tell our readers all the cool things about the characters, and the backstories, and the world we’ve built. The problem with this is that the reader doesn’t know the characters, or care about the world yet.
If the story starts with info-dumps that outline everything we need to know about the world or the character, it’s going to read like a textbook, not a story.
Start your story in the present, with action - not necessarily in terms of car chases and explosions but with things that are happening NOW. Backstory and world building can be woven into the narrative as the story progresses.
How does your book start? What tips do you have for starting a story? Let me know in the comments!
LAUREN PALPHREYMAN is a writer based in London. She is best known for her supernatural teen romance series, Cupid's Match, which has accumulated over 50 million hits online and was published by Wattpad Books / Penguin Random House, October 2019. Find her on Instagram @LaurenPalphreyman and on Twitter @LEPalphreyman. Get hold of her debut, Cupid's Match, here!
Snarky Angels. Bad boy Omens. Dangerous Demons. And a deal with the Devil. . .
Get your copy of Devils Inc here!