If a writer wants readers, it’s important to give a novel a strong beginning. Here’s some of the advice you see scattered around in craft books.
Start Where the Story Starts
Miss Snark used to critique pages for her blog readers, and one of the things she did most frequently was cross out a few paragraphs or pages and say, “Your story starts here.” Readers need less preparation for the story than writers think they do. Start where something changes.
Don’t Use a Prologue
Many readers skip prologues, so don’t use one. Or, if you do, make it connect to the main story. Don’t just have it be something exciting because you know the start of your actual story is boring. If the start of your actual story is boring, the way to fix that is to make it not-boring.
Also, don’t be tricky with the prologue. I very much liked a fantasy writer’s first book, in which a strong friendship between two men played a part. The second book in the series opened with a sort of flash forward prologue in which the two friends quarreled and one of them killed the other. Then we jumped back in time and started building toward this scene. I read breathlessly until I got to the quarrel/murder. And ha! The characters were only fooling! I threw the book across the room and swore I’d never read another one by that writer.
Start With the Main Character in Motion
Trick yourself into writing a more engaging opening by having the character be walking, running, climbing, doing laundry, something that puts them in motion rather than sitting around thinking.
Engage the Reader with the Character
Start with the character in motion, but don’t expect readers to care about a big action scene unless they’ve already gotten to know and care about the main character a little. One possibility is to use what movie writer Blake Snyder calls a “save the cat” moment in which you have the main character do or say something kind, or funny, or engaging in some way. As an example, Snyder gives the Al Pacino character in “Sea of Love.” Pacino plays a cop engaged in a sting to lure in lawbreakers, but in the first few minutes, he sees a target arrive with his small son in tow. Pacino discreetly flashes his badge, and the guy gets his kid out of there.
Avoid Overused Openings
Don’t use any of the myriad of overused openings–the main character waking up or getting a phone call, for instance.
Most writers I know rewrite their books’ openings again and again. Mine never look the same in the final draft as they did in the first one. When I revise, it’s these guidelines I look to.