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Off To A Strong Start

by Maureen Lang

Sometimes the place your story starts isn’t always the place to open your novel. There are three choices:

Just Before the major problem/conflict comes up, with a hint of the iceberg ahead.

Just As the conflict arises.

Just After the hero or heroine has a first glimpse of that looming iceberg in their path.

Just-before openings allow your reader to see the comparative brightness of your character’s life, in contrast to the seriousness of the problem they’ll face. By introducing your character before the problem arises, your reader will have a glimpse of how they will react. Caution: This is not a “hook” opener, and using a pre-problem open runs the risk of going on too long for the reader to become engaged. Today’s reader is used to sound-bites and fast food, so you must catch them before boredom sets in. Some kind of action is necessary for a compelling opening.

Pre-problem opening action may foreshadow the main conflict ahead, or it may be unrelated action in order to reveal a certain trait you want your character to display.

Both Just-as and Just-after openers are often used as hooks. Hooks stir immediate curiosity to see how the characters will respond. However, your reader will only be interested in the problem if she’s interested in the character. So . . . with this kind of opening, it’s necessary to reveal your character’s special and unique traits and personality while introducing the conflict at the same time.

Your opening pages set the tone for the entire novel, so make sure you follow through with the promise you’re setting up from the first page. Is the mood light or serious? Romantic or mysterious? Tense, suspenseful? Comedic or literary?

Beginnings are re-written more often than any other part of a manuscript, so give yourself enough grace to proceed before you feel your opening is perfect. You can, and most likely will, return for revision once you know your characters and plot line better, even if you’re not a seat-of-the-pants writer. Foreshadowing never looks so good as when it is inserted by the author after the first draft reveals what needs foreshadowing.

In summary, your opening should include the following:

Action- related to the main plot or a device to highlight an important character trait necessary in the impending conflict.

Tone Definition- follow through on the promise you make to your reader by setting up the proper tone from page one. Having the ending in mind, even at the beginning, will help you to set and maintain a consistent tone.
Introduction of characters should include their loyalties, sympathies, unique personality. Your character’s goals or the obstacle ahead should be hinted or foreshadowed as soon as possible.

Setting- is far more important to establish early to ground your reader than to spend too much narrative on later.

Remember there are no free rides in good writing, particularly in the beginning. Every word counts, especially when you’re first connecting with your reader.


Maureen Lang writes stories inspired by a love of history and romance, and her books have finaled in the Christy, Rita and Carol. Her newest novel from Tyndale is set in New York City’s Gilded Age, Bees In The Butterfly Garden. She lives in the Midwest with her husband, children and Labrador retriever.

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