The story is where your protagonist is faced with a problem–a big one that’s going to carry the protagonist through a character arc of trial/errors, defeat and then victory (or tragic downfall). You want to establish just who is the protagonist, what is the problem, what’s keeping the protagonist from an easy solution, and you want to set the tone of the story (is it comic, dark, romantic, or something else), and establish the world.
Here’s what I like to keep in mind for those opening pages:
1-Who is the protagonist? In every story, you really one one character who has the main character arc. Yes, even in a romance, you might have a couple who falls in love, but one of them really has the major growth, and that is the protagonist.
2-What’s the big problem? I want this to be on page one if possible, but it must be within the first ten pages. This is part of the big hook–a big problem that will make the reader think, “How is this going to be solved?” I want conflict right away, and that doesn’t have to be a gun fight or a car chase, but it does mean getting the characters talking and doing as soon as possible.
3-How is the reader going to bond with this main character? You don’t have to have the protagonist saving kittens on page one, but it sure helps to get the reader on that character’s side if you give the reader something. The something can be an admirable trait (humor in the face of danger, intelligence, charm, or a mad skill), or it can be an action undertaken that puts the reader on that character’s side, or it can be simply an understanding of the character’s motivations. Understanding helps with sympathy.
4-Where and when are we? This is one I often see skipped over. The where and when are important to establishing both mood and setting. Readers want to be immersed into a world, and this is done by layering details of that world so the reader experiences it. Or, as Chekhov–the writer, not the Star Trek character–once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Showing takes time to put the reader into the world. What are the smells? The sounds? What time of year is it? Are you showing the heat, or telling the reader about it? What details better build the mood? What details reveal the character to the reader? Details matter–and the right details are vital to making the world vivid. I want the reader to see, hear, smell, touch and taste the world right away, and doing so within a character’s viewpoint can help bond the reader to that character (which is why it is so important to start off with the right character as the protagonist).
5-What’s the overall tone of the story? If I want a light, comic romance, I’m going to go for a setting, a scene, and a situation that gives me the material I can use to set the tone. I am not going to start with a funeral–not unless it’s dark comedy. If the story is action-adventure, then I want that on page one. If the story is paranormal, I want the weird on page one to help hook the reader. Don’t hold back–the reader got a promise from the cover blurb and title, but those first few pages is where a reader will decided to settle down to the story or not. Know what you want to deliver and get it up front. Tone comes from word choices, from the setting, from the viewpoint you use, and from what you have your character doing. Again, it’s all about getting the details right.
6-What are the stakes? This is another one I often see overlooked. For something to matter to the reader, the reader must know the potential cost to the main character. What will the protagonist gain from achieving the big goal? What will he or she loose if failure is the result? If the reader doesn’t have a clue about this, then why should the reader care about the outcome? Let the reader know up front that there are high stakes (and later on, you’ll want to raise those stakes even more).
7-Where is the protagonist going to end up? I want the end to mirror the opening, but to do so in a way that shows the protagonist’s growth (that the protagonist has indeed really changed and come out the other side–the old self is dead). This means I am often thinking of the ending at the same time I’m thinking about the beginning of the story. However, not knowing the ending shouldn’t hold you up from starting a story. It just means you need to keep in mind that you may need revisions to the opening once you get the ending written. Keep it fluid.
I know writers who think, “I’ll hold this back because I want to build anticipation.” Good luck with that–you are just as likely to lose the reader. Or you may think, “But the reader really has to know all this background about the protagonist.” No, the reader doesn’t need to know backstory or setup–the reader needs the story to start. Save your backstory until the reader really, really, really needs it. A good guideline is keep any background to one or two sentences, not one or two paragraphs unless you can make the writing utterly compelling.
Finally, don’t get stuck on editing the opening. Get it down and get going–you can always come back to it later. You may find out, too, that where you really needed to start the story was in chapter three, but those first two chapters at least got you writing.