When you’re first starting a story, there’s a lot to think about—your characters, plot, and world-building, to say nothing of critical questions like what to name your character’s pet dog.
But there are five things you need to include in the opening scenes of your book to help your readers.
Characters. This may sound obvious, but readers need to get a sense as to who the main characters are in the first few scenes. This doesn’t mean they need pages of exposition—the story will probably do better without that–but we need a sense of their personality. Are they independent or shy? Sword-wielding or eager to make peace at all costs? There should be glints of this, no matter what your characters are up to or who you start the story with.
Purpose. What are your characters up to? If you’re writing a complex story, we might not know everything, but we should get some immediate ideas about what they’re doing and why. Are they picking flowers for their mother or running from danger? What’s at stake in the very first scene? If an overgrown chincilla crashes into their world, we need to know what they just lost…minus all the green food the chincilla will eat, of course.
Setting and Time. Where and when something happens can be just as critical as what. Is it late at night? Early in the morning? And how long ago, in their world, does this story happen? Some of this may tie into the purpose and tone, but it does need to be considered, as no one lives in an empty void.
Tone. Your readers should get a sense of what kind of book this is from how it’s written, even from the very first scene or two. This doesn’t mean a story that starts out cheerful has to end cheerful, or a story that’s dramatic needs people dying in the first scene, but there should be hints of what lies ahead. If it starts out like Disney and turns into Dostoevsky, you have a big marketing problem.
Pacing. This may be one of the most overlooked concepts in writing, but pacing matters, and it shouldn’t stay the same throughout the book. A beginning could start slow and move on to something more intense once the world is established, or it could start quickly, with immediate danger, and then settle down later, but how you handle pacing is critical to pull readers into the story and help them feel like the action is believably happening—and is intriguing enough to make them buy your book.