In a bookstore, how do you decide which novel to buy? Most of us look first at the title and jacket copy, then open to the first page and read a paragraph or two. If they don't capture our interest, we put the book back on the shelf.
When you finish a novel and query agents or editors, they are your potential buyers. They use the same method to decide whether or not to ask you to send the rest of your manuscript. Most request one to three chapters with the query as a sample rather than a paragraph, but if the opening doesn't hook them, they may not read the rest.
The opening of your novel must entice the editor or agent to read the entire story. It should plant a seed of suspense, set the mood, begin building dramatic tension, and pose a question the reader wants answered.
To do this, you need to choose the right time and place to open your story.
All stories don't start at the beginning.
One of the basic rules for writing a novel is to begin as close to the end as possible. The main reason for this is that's where the real suspense begins. It's usually the point in a suspense novel where story goals of the protagonist and villain cross and put them in conflict. Characters’ backgrounds and how they reached that point then emerge as the story unfolds.
Where do I begin?
You have two choices. Begin with chapter one or with a prologue. The two are not interchangeable, however.
Opening with an interesting character doing something dramatic is an excellent way to hook the reader. The scene must fit in smoothly as part of the story or an introduction to it in some way.
Deciding if it's chapter one or a prologue.
If your opening scene leads directly into the story without a break in time, it should be chapter one.
If the opening scene helps set up the story but happens before the actual story takes place, and the interval of time between them isn't shown, it should be a prologue .
Example #1: Your story is about a young, widowed mother who discovers an intruder in her California hillside house when she brings her sick child home from nursery school during a terrible rain storm.
Since you want to start with a scene that hooks the reader, beginning with the intruder before he gets into the house offers strong possibilities.
Through his viewpoint, you can create the impression he has a mental problem of some kind, has trouble remembering things and is menacing. You can also show the ferocity of the storm as he drives up the canyon road and runs out of gas.
When the story switches to the woman in the next chapter, she leaves home to pick up her sick child and passes the dark car pulled off the side of the road.
The reader already knows the man in the car is a threat of some kind, and the heroine has just crossed his path. The suspense is set up and the reader is eager to know what will happen next.
Example #2: Your story is about a young mother who learns the man convicted of murdering her husband five years ago has just been released from prison on a technicality. She is terrified he will come after her because her testimony was the crucial evidence against him at the trial.
Since the murder took place five years before the jeopardy story begins, the murder would create a more dramatic opening than introducing the woman in chapter one.
The scene about the murder would be a valid prologue. It sets up a vital part of the background the current story needs. It helps the reader understand why the protagonist is so worried about the man finding her. It also creates dramatic suspense that will build throughout the story.
Choose where to begin your novel carefully. It can make the difference between getting your manuscript read or rejected. Getting it read is the first step toward getting it published.
Marilyn Henderson chose writing as a second career so she could work from home. She had no idea how hard it was to make that first sale then keep selling. Thanks to her mentor, she soon learned the difference between writing a novel she hoped would sell and what editors really buy. Now after more than 60 novels published she shares her expertise in a tell-all book that creates a blueprint to publication. Marilyn also mentors writers and critiques manuscripts for those who want to build careers or make those first sales.