It’s likely that we’ve all encountered these stories—the ones that open with an explosion, plague, car chase, alien abduction, fist fight, or other volatile scene involving a main character that we know virtually nothing about. I get why authors do this. It makes sense that starting the story with a bang would engage readers and suck them right in. But most of the time, the opposite happens for me: I end up confused and uninterested. And here’s why: To care about what’s happening to the character, I have to first care about the character.
To care about a hero, readers need to know what he wants and what’s at stake if he doesn’t get it. They’ve also got to respond to him emotionally on a certain level if they’re going to empathize with him and his circumstances. Readers need to have a feel for this stuff before the main character gets thrown into the arena or accused of espionage. If the cart comes before the horse here, it’s highly likely that readers won’t engage and may not continue reading.
So how do we avoid this problem in our own writing?
1. Don’t start with the main action. We need to see the character in her real world before the main conflict arises. This provides contrast, pitting the old safe-but-somehow-unsatisfactory world against the crazy new one. It also gives us a chance to get to know the hero before her world is turned upside down. So if your story is about people surviving an ebola outbreak, don’t open with the hero’s mother bleeding from the eyes. If it’s about a woman living in the aftermath of divorce, don’t open with her husband leaving her. Give readers a chance to care about the hero before the main conflict arises, and readers will be more inclined to stick around to see what happens to her.
2. Avoid gimmicky opening action sequences. I made this mistake in one of my first novels. My book opened with the main character running through a field, breathing heavily and casting frantic looks over her shoulder. Readers assumed she was being chased, and she was. But when it turned out she was just playing hide-and-seek, they were not amused. The opening came across as contrived, which is fitting, since that’s exactly what it was. Readers are smart. They know when they’re being deceived or manhandled, and like anyone with any sense, they don’t like it at all. (This is one of the reasons why opening dream sequences rarely work.)
The thing is, enthralling stories that suck readers in don’t have to start with action. Look at The Hunger Games. Talk about action-packed—yet, it opens with the main character waking up. Collins could have opened her book at half-a-dozen later points in the story, and there would have been a lot more going on. But those openings wouldn’t have worked, imo, because they weren’t the right place to start her story. And that brings us to something super important that you have to do…
3. Start your story in the right place. Somebody famous (I forgot to write down the attribution and now I can’t remember who. Sorry, anonymous writer mentor person!) said that you should start your story just before the protagonist’s life intersects with the antagonist’s agenda. The Hunger Games is a great example. President Snow’s agenda is to strengthen his control over the people of Panem via the hunger games. Katniss has been to the reaping a number of times, but because her name hasn’t been called, her life hasn’t yet intersected with Snow’s agenda. That doesn’t happen until Prim’s name is picked. Had Collins started the story after that, the opening would have been jarring and probably confusing for readers. Had she started much earlier than she did, the opening would have dragged.
All of that being said, books in certain genres—thrillers and detective stories, for example—are more likely to start things off with a bang, and readers tend to respond favorably. But whatever the genre, finding the right starting point is critically important in engaging readers early. (See Kristen Lamb’s post on this topic). Locate that magical point where the antagonist’s agenda intersects with the hero’s life. Open your story just before that collision, and you’ll likely be starting in a spot that will resonate with readers.