So how do you know when to start? My friend, the late Leslie Carmichael, said to start at the startling point, the point at which the story starts with a bang, but in my opinion, that’s what scene two should be. Imagine your book opens with a character weeping over the fallen after a bloody battle. You’d be shocked at just how many fantasies start with the dead horses just poking out of the creeping mist and smoke, the scavengers picking over the best parts of the dead be in the pocket or the still wet enough to be shining eyes, and the camera of the book pans to the manly man or the warriorly woman (bikini armor optional) sobbing into their hands.
I don’t know enough about this character to know if they’re weeping because they’ve lost everyone they knew and but for a horse shoe nail, they’d be among the dead or if they’re crying in frustration because there isn’t anyone else left alive to slaughter. If this is a prologue, there isn’t even a guarantee that crying dude/tte hasn’t been dead for the past four hundred years, to which I can feel even more fucks slipping through my hands as I don’t have very many left to give out at this point.
It’s a vivid (if overdone) scene, but you have to let the reader know ahead of time if we should love or hate the character before you throw them under the bus. I mix my metaphors like cookie dough, sorry. My golden rule of beginnings is we have to care about the bacon guys.
Who are the bacon guys? We don’t know, that’s the point. In one of the most brilliant moments of television history, season one of Stargate Atlantis (don’t judge, BSG was still a year away from being a mini-series) starts a two-parter episodes with two Atlantian redshirts having a conversation. We don’t know these guys from Adam. Obviously they are going to die — they don’t even have names — but one guy turns to the other guy and says, “Bacon is the food that makes other food worth eating”. It’s an overdone cliche now, but 2004 was early on in the internet losing its collective minds over bacon. Then Kolya opens the gate and bam, they bacon guys are dead.
Their deaths aren’t the point. The point is, as their bodies are still jerking around on the floor, my friend and I turned to each other and said, in unison, “No! Not the bacon guys!” With one line of dialogue, we absolutely loved those two guys, and when Kolya kills them, it means something. If the shot had opened up with the big bad shooting two extras on a television set, we would have shrugged and their deaths would have meant nothing.
When you’re writing a book, it’s important to remember that no one owes you anything. Not their time, not their attention, not them turning to chapter seven to see if your book is going to get any better. The most precious real estate in your entire book is those first three paragraphs. You don’t need to start with hellfire and brimstone, you don’t need a clever line of dialogue or a description of the weather, you need whose ever eyes are opening this book to care, instantly about what happens to whomever the book is opening on.
If you’re thinking okay, with you so far, how do I get the reader to care about the bacon guys, I have some really bad news. There are no hard rules after this point, only guidelines. Having your character want something is immediately engaging. Something has to happen so that the main character cannot just stay where they are. This should hopefully happen on the page, if not then well woven into the first couple of scenes. They can’t be good enough to just deal with the problem as it stands with their present skills. The problem has to be both important, to either the character itself or the world or ideally, both. The antagonist has to be good enough and strong enough to realistically beat the main character so the reader isn’t assured of anything. The more emotional high and low points you give your character, the more dopamine the brain releases.
A book is the only device we havle today where the reader cannot split his attention. They can’t read what you have to say and click through the internet or play games or watch movies or or or or or. The point is there are games out there specifically designed to give and keep their audience hooked on the intermittent reward system. You need to play the same game. If you do not release a trail of dopamine through your plot that is rewarding enough for your readers to stay hooked on your books, they’ll put your book down and find something that will reward that much. The best part about writing is that you do not have to nail this the first time out. You can write and rewrite until every scene emotionally rewards the reader one way or the other. Also, the brain rewards their person if they share that thing that they found pleasurable, and there is absolutely no marketing as effective as one person telling another perosn that this book was awesome.
Learning to write is like learning to play chess. The rules of the game may seem like, at the time you’re learning them, the most difficult part of writing. Then once you learn who moves where when, suddenly you realize there are always more complex strategies on how to play the game. It can take a lifetime to master the skills.