“Every time mama came down on that shabby floor, the bullet lodged in my stomach felt like a hot poker.”
Claude Brown and I hunted through his manuscript for two days to find that moment and move it to the opening of his classic Harlem memoir Manchild in the Promised Land.
We wanted to detail the true grit of getting shot at age 13 while dealing drugs at a fish and chips joint, and to include the emotional drama of his mother jumping up and down in despair. We added the hot poker detail to scorch the reader’s sense of sight, sound, and visceral pain. We hoped this start-up moment would persuade them to buy the book. And if 4 million copies sold in 14 languages is hard evidence, something must have worked.
The importance of first pages
The first pages of your story create an instant impression of its quality and value. Agents, acquisition editors, reviewers and potential buyers standing in a store or scanning the First Pages feature on Amazon – are all going to keep reading or skip to the next candidate, depending on how they respond to your opening.
As a developmental editor, I often work with authors to reconstruct, revise, and create completely new openings. It’s a challenge editors face often, and it’s one of the most essential. Here are some of the main issues and how to solve them.
How to begin your book
The first sentence of your book must have compelling emotional energy, whether it’s the magnetism of the narrative voice, the wit of the smart dialogue, or the evocative description of the dramatic environment.
But an opening to a story is more than just one sentence, no matter how brilliant. That’s only the first step in getting the reader’s attention. Next you need to develop the whole scene.
Four techniques for creating a great opening
1. Start with a moment that changes everything
As the author, you know how the story will evolve, but your reader doesn’t. Therefore, you can write an opening that throws everything up in the air, creating a whole new universe of anticipation in the reader’s imagination.