Almost everyone comes to a story for emotion. The promise of a thrill or a laugh or a good cry must be there from the start or another story, which will provide what the reader is looking for, will be selected instead.
It's also the writer's responsibility to keep the reader engaged. New writers especially do not get much leeway on this. The benefit of the doubt – is this worth my time? – may not last any longer than the first few sentences.
To help you bulletproof your beginning, I developed these questions. Not all need to be answered. (You know your story and your audience.) But I hope at least a few will help you to spruce up and make a good first impression.
- Does the beginning raise questions? It doesn't necessarily have to jump right into the story question, but there should be at least one question that causes a reader to turn pages.
- Does the story move? Without bullets flying or death-defying leaps, is there sense that you've dropped into something that's already in progress?
- Is the reader spared a slog through description and back story many skip past nowadays?
- Does the story sound promising from the first few sentences? Is there an intriguing hook? Or an arresting opening image? Or a line of dialogue that would make you eavesdrop on the subway?
- Is it clear? While mystery is okay, readers should believe that everything in the first pages will make sense sooner or later. And they should not need to reread any of the sentences.
- Does the reader know who the main character is? Do they know who they are supposed to empathize with?
- Is empathy supported? While characters don't need to be likable, they do need to have human experiences that matter emotionally illustrated within the first few pages.
- Do readers know the stakes? And are they high enough to worry about? Do they create a sense of foreboding were tension?
- Is the setting expressed with enough detail to allow the reader to participate? Is there enough description and enough stated so the reader can follow the path to immersion in the story world? Do indicators, early enough so that the reader does not need to revise initial impressions about the setting (unless this is intentional, as is sometimes the case in speculative fiction and comedy)? Note: setting includes era, season, and time of day. Not just place.
- Is there a perspective, the use of language, or a voice that elicits confidence and may even charm the reader?
- Are the rules of this world, even if it is mimetic, presented so all that happens can be understood and the reader will not feel anything that occurs is a cheat or unfair?
- Are there hooks? Does the writer plant intriguing and question-raising information from the very start and throughout the first pages of the story?
- Is anticipation built? Does the reader quickly have expectations that will be fulfilled, exceeded, and manipulated for surprise and delight?
- Are clichés avoided? Both in terms of phrases and situations (waking up, arriving, dealing with amnesia).
- Does the story, even in the first few pages, hint at the overall theme?
- Are the senses engaged? Is the reader encouraged to experience the story in ways beyond just hearing and seeing and are these in a reasonable and natural balance with the material?
- Are the scenes in the beginning of the story well-constructed, with clear motives, beginnings, middles, and ends?
- Within the first few pages, are there any surprises? Does it go beyond the expected in ways that promise entertaining revelations?
- Is it clear within the first few pages what the genre is? Will the reader know what kind of a book he or she picked up after the first few pages, or, for instance, will they be liable to experience disappointment when they realize that sexy romance is really a horror story?
- Does the reader have a reason to keep turning the pages after the first scene, the second scene, the third scene, and however many scenes make up the beginning of the story?