Easier said than done.
Here are some tips to help you get a grip on this opening paragraph:
- Open your novel with the character's arc (the protagonist's problem or the beginning of the crisis). It can be a fear or a guess or something bothering the MC in some way. First moment of a major conflict. Show a puzzle the MC must unravel.
- Use a distinctive voice. How is your MC different from the hundreds of other MCs I have read about? If I can classify your hero into a box, an archetype, then you need to make some changes. Offer some characterization.
- Hint at the plot. Offer an answer to why the reader should read further. What's so special about your story that I haven't read before?
- Describe the setting. From the big picture, close in (not the contrary).
- Introduce something at stake that will reveal the hero's true nature. Not only a personal stake, but one that touches a group of people. The stake should force your hero to take action, to react, to make decisions. A plus if the reaction is unexpected. Ask a question the reader wants an answer to (Will the MC kill her sister or will the MC fall for the enemy?)
"Novels should begin with character and world building. You need to introduce the reader to your world and let them explore your world a little before you can introduce the main conflict.
More than anything, the first ten to thirty pages are there to show us why we should like your protagonist.
You can and should still have conflict, but it should be a simmering kind of conflict, under the surface, threatening but not breaking out into full boil just yet."
(Bunting, Joe. "How to start your novel.")
"Isabel Valverde was coming home. The brief, terrible letter from her brother had brought her across five thousand miles of ocean, from the New World to the Old, and during the long voyage she thought she had prepared herself for the worst. But now that London lay just beyond the next bend of the River Thames, she dreaded what awaited her. The not knowing - that was the hardest. Would she find her mother still a prisoner awaiting execution? Horrifying though it was, Isabel could at least hope to see her one last time. Or had her mother already been hanged?"
The Queen's Gamble by Barbara Kyle
The author introduces the reader to the action without giving us the answer. Will her mom be executed? The reader is able to share the heroine's feelings and learns that the heroine loves her mom enough to try to save her and travel thousands of miles to see her maybe one last time. The emotional charge makes the reader care.
The story starts with a pivotal and intriguing event charged with apprehension and terrible consequences for the family.
The context i introduced with the mention of England and where Isabel is coming from.
The only problem I see with this first paragraph is that it is telling and it is a bit of a throat clearing. Fortunately, the second paragraph shows her on the ship approaching the coast of England.
"After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point. Most of the thousands of slaves in Endovier received similar treatment - though an extra half-dozen guards always walked Celaena to and from the mines. That was expected by Adarlan's most notorious assassin. What she did not usually expect, however, was a hooded man in black at her side- as there was now."
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
The author in this opening has focalized on world building and mystery. The shadow next to her is very intriguing. Something has changed, but we do not know what. The heroine remarks the change. We learn that the heroine is very dangerous and curious and that she has been enslaved for a year along with comrades. That's crucial information and makes the reader feel bad for her. The opening focuses on the first moments of the conflict.
"The musky scent of mustard oil intensified in the early-August heat. Nazia ran a hand across her tightly braided hair, then wiped the oil on the front of her rumpled kameeze. A yellowish-orange stain seeped into the cotton fabric of her shirt, and she regretted it immediately. Less than a week into the new school year, and already her starched white uniform was permanently stained. She grabbed a handful of sand from the side of the road and rubbed it in, hoping the earth would soak up at least some of the dense oil and save he from Amma's scolding."
Beneath My Mother's Feet by Amjed Qamar
This opening does a great job making the reader care for the heroine and what will happen to her. It introduces the reader to an exotic land and different customs. It tells the reader when this is happening. The author focused on world building and the heroine's arc. We know that something bad might happen to her. The paragraph is a reflection of the title.
- No rhetorical question (what if...)
- Describing the setting, the weather, a feeling, too many sensory elements without any story going on.
- Do not clear your throat (like morning wake up or summarizing something, musing or starting with a dream or telling what will happen or the death of the protagonist, funerals for paranormal novels or the ending of something or being on the road)
- Introducing minor characters first or a group or people at a party
- Action without context like a battle. Start with a bang or a conflict without building up to it. The hero is in danger in a prison cell or tied to a chair or tortured or in a battlefield.
- Bad news phone call or MC finding something or discovering something without any introduction to the context or MC
- Do not introduce your story with a back story.
"I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.”
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
This opening offers a cliche: the heroine looks at herself in the mirror and describes herself. It sounds artificial. The conflict here seems to be about a hairdo, which involves not stake. There is no emotional tension we can care about and no problem involving more than one person. The heroine seems self-centered and temperamental, which does not draw in the reader and nothing special about her transpires from those lines. There is no context. We still do not know where this is happening and the focus is from the close in to the big picture.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION!
Those rules mainly apply to beginning writer because many authors have violated these rules without any wrong effect on their readership.
A few examples follow:
TELLING THEREADER WHAT WILL HAPPEN:
"Let me tell you why I wished to buy a meerkat at Quin's Shanghai Circus."
— Veniss Underground, Jeff Vandermeer
"Diaries are kept by men: strong brushstrokes on smooth mulberry paper, gathered into sheaves and tied with ribbon and placed in a lacquered box."
— The Fox Woman, Kij Johnson
Mini, Anne. "The Scariest Halloween ever: submitting your first page to a bunch of agents for critique." October 31, 2006
Allen, Anne, R. "13 ways not to start your novel." September 4, 2011.
Brooks, Larry. "A better way to open your novel."
Llewellyn, David. "The opening paragraph of 'Fifty Shades of Grey' - and why it's terrible." October 17, 2012.