Sunday, March 4, 2012

Set up Your Story in the First Paragraphs

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker    

I receive several first chapters (and synopses) every week as submissions for possibleediting, and I always read the first page. Some are clear and compelling and make me want to read more. But too often, two main problems emerge: Either the author spends too much time revving his engine with description or backstory before we even care (boring); or we’re plunged right into the story but have no idea where we are or what’s going on (confusing). 

There are three cardinal rules of successful novelists: 

1. Don’t bore your reader!

2. Don’t confuse your reader!   

3. Don’t annoy your reader!

I’ve discussed the negative effects of starting off too slowly, with too much description and/or backstory, in other articles (see the links at the end of this article). Today, I’ll focus on the other problem that can turn readers off — fuzzy beginnings. Sometimes I feel confused and frustrated, wondering who this character is — and is it the main character, or someone else? Also, where the heck is she? And what’s she doing, exactly? It’s frustrating not being able to form a mental picture of who it is and what’s going on, right from the start.

Your first paragraph and first page are absolutely critical! Not only do they need to hook your reader in quickly, set the tone for the rest of the book, and “show your stuff” in regards to your writing style, but the reader needs to be able to visualize your opening scene, the who, the where and the when, so they can relax and start enjoying the story. If they're confused, they’re going to start getting frustrated and could well put down your book. Readers want to be able to get into the story right away, not have to spend the first several pages — or more — trying to figure out what’s going on.

So try to work in the basics of the 4 W’s below in your first page — preferably within the first two or three paragraphs. Give the readers a quick snapshot of who, what, where and when, without going in to a great deal of detail yet. Give them just enough to get oriented so they’re not totally confused and can start enjoying the story.

Who? Whose story is it? Your protagonist should appear in the first paragraph; better yet, in the first sentence — in his/her point of view, of course! Don’t start out with someone else, then introduce your main character in chapter two, or even later in chapter one. Readers will have started emotionally investing in someone else who may be a minor character, then be disappointed and annoyed when they find out they’re not the person they’re supposed to be caring about!

What? What’s going on? What is he/she doing, exactly? Can the reader visualize the situation? If not, add a few details.

Where? Where is he/she? Overall setting — country, state/province, city/town; and if inside, inside where? An office building? A log cabin? At home? Which room? It can be really annoying for a reader to start reading dialogue and have no idea where the speakers are.

When? Is this story taking place in the present? The past? How far in the past? What season? What month? In the morning? Afternoon? Evening? Middle of the night?

Also, your first page is a kind of promise to your readers. Readers want to get a feel quickly for your writing style and the genre or your handling of the genre, so be sure that your first page reflects the overall tone, style, and voice of the novel, and even hints at aspects like the level of violence they can expect, etc. Then keep your promise by delivering for the rest of the novel!

Just as I was about to post this short article based on my own experiences reading, judging and editing fiction, I received the latest issue of Writer’s Digest magazine (March 2012), and serendipitously, noticed Steven James’ article, “5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make.” In a sidebar, James discusses writing an effective first sentence, paragraph and page. His fifth point expresses my focus for this article.

Evaluate Your Hook:
With each story you start, always remember that an effective hook needs to do seven things:

1. Grab the readers’ attention

2. Introduce a character readers care about.

3. Set the story’s mood.

4. Establish the storyteller’s voice.

5. Orient readers to the world of the protagonist (and enable them to picture it).

6. Lock in the genre.

7. End in a way that is both surprising and satisfying.

See also, "Act First, Explain Later" on The Thrill Begins blogspot, and "Those Crucial First Five Pages" here at Crime Fiction Collective, both on writing an effective opening to your novel.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter


  1. I probably rewrite my opening dozens of times, and usually after I've written 3 or 4 chapters. (It used to be more like 8, so I'm getting better)

    For me, the ending is just as hard, or harder. Your first page has to sell your book. Your last page has to sell your NEXT book.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. Great advice, Jodie. I encountered that a lot as an editor as well: too much backstory and confusion in the first few pages.

    As a reader and writer, I like a story that jumps right into action.

  3. Thanks, Terry. A lot of writers wait until they've finished the whole first draft, or most of it, then go back and polish up their opening.

    LJ, I like a story that starts "in medias res" (in the middle of things) too, but I also need hints of who it is, what's going on, where they are, and roughly when, so I can visualize the scene. Then I can sit back and get into the story and enjoy it.

  4. Great advice, Jodie. I have this mental image of you writing blog posts based on what you read (or didn't read) in someone's manuscript.

    Thanks for the informative posts.

  5. I'm teaching an online class on "Beginnings" right now with the masterful Les Edgerton, author of HOOKED. His feeling is that if you nail the opening you're halfway to a successful novel--and I have to agree. Thanks for this roundup of strategies and points.

  6. You're welcome, Jenny! Good luck with your class! And I agree with Les Edgerton. I'm sure the students will learn a lot.

  7. A good post, Jodie, and an important one. Research shows that one of the first things people do when deciding on whether to purchase a book--besides looking at the cover-- is flip to the first page. Most never get past the first few sentences. That tells us how important the beginning of a book is. In many cases, you only have that small window to grab the reader's attention. It's make or break.

  8. Absolutely, Drew! Thanks for your input.

  9. I often have to move stuff from the second or third chapter of my manuscript to the first page. I get to know my characters (if not my series characters) so I tend to flesh them and establish genre, setting, etc. before throwing the characters into the fire, so to speak.

  10. Gerrie, a lot of authors find it useful to go back later and actually cut the first chapter or two and start the whole book on chapter two or three. Take out the "warm-up" at the beginning and jump right in.


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