There’s a recent trend in the contest I’ve been judging, and not a good one. And I think the confusion comes from the idea that you want to open fast and with action. This can be a good thing…or very, very bad.
First, let’s look at some wrong ways to open a book with a fast pace.
Action that’s just action for the sake of the characters doing something does not help your readers. The opening needs to set reader expectations about the tone of the book—so just action ends up giving the reader a mistaken idea about the book. Much better to open with your main character in a scene where something key about the character is show—and even better to have the action relate to the main plot.
Characters piled into the first few pages is another way to confuse readers and make it hard to get into the story. This is like walking into a party where you don’t know anyone—you tend to want to walk out again. Start with main characters and ease the reader into introductions.
Setting skipped past is yet another way to leave readers wondering about the story. This one is easy to if you’re busy with just a fast-paced happenings—but the reader has to known where and when the scene (and the book) starts. What’s the time of day, is the weather cold or hot, and the world like? The reader needs a little time to settle into the scene and the book. Every book needs this, but this is vital with historical, paranormal romances, or any book with an other-world setting.
Danger is often put into the first page and that can work, but only if the reader cares about what’s going on. A better way to think of this is that conflict and tension do not have to be instantly dialed up to ten—an opening scene with something as simple as a child’s lost shoe can involve the reader in the story if you first take the time to establish characters the reader can care about.
Dialogue can lead to a good or bad opening—this one can be tricky. You might have a great line—but if it feels stuffed into the opening, it’s not going to work. I’ve seen scenes that were obviously twisted to try and fit some clever dialogue into the opening. Instead, the scene came out stiff and as if it didn’t belong with the rest of the book.
Backstory, if laid in too heavy, is also going to kill your opening. The thing to remember here is that if you’re going back in time to put in stuff that happened in the past, you are not moving the present story forward. This is where you have to find the balance between weaving in enough information to keep everything clear and understandable, but not so much that you give the reader huge chunks of the past. Keep it to a sentence here and there. Not paragraphs. (Unless, of course, they are utterly brilliant paragraphs—and do not lie to yourself and tell yourself they are brilliant when they are not.)
Those are the main ways to do it wrong. How do you put in an opening that grabs the reader?
We all know these openings when we read them. Go out and read them. Take them apart and see how others do this. Dick Francis, the mystery writer, is a master of the fast opening that sets up the world and gives you an immediate likeable, sympathetic character. Nora Roberts is another writer who always starts her stories at the right place. When you find writers who give you great openings, don’t just read the rest of the book. Stop, take the writing apart. Look at the descriptions, the balance of narrative to scene (telling to showing), look at the viewpoint control, the words used, the sentence structures, the metaphors. Then look at your own work. Are you applying the same techniques? (Techniques, not same word—your writing will come across as stale if you try and put in sentences and phrases already used by others.)
Most of all, keep in mind the question—are you leading your reader by the hand into a nice swimming hole. Or are you pushing them into the deep end without so much as a lifeline? No one likes to be shoved into something, least of all a reader. Introduce your characters to your readers. Set the stage. Make the world come to life with just enough of the right descriptions (the ones that matter most to the story and the characters). Readers everywhere will thank you.