Grab your reader with a killer opening line. Some may tell you never to open with dialogue, others will tell you...
well, there's an amusing article (more of a rant) that lists a number of ways you should not start a story. Read A Newbie's Guide to Publishing: How Not to Write a Story.
Joe Konrath makes some excellent points and explains each one (for the most part).
So how should you start a story?
- First and foremost: introduce conflict. Conflict is the bread and butter of fiction. Without it, fiction is boring. If no one in your first scene has a need, then you need to cut that scene. Start somewhere else.
- You also need to show (and I do mean SHOW) your character(s). Just the main ones for now. You don't want to overwhelm your readers with a bunch of characters at once. You do want them to connect to the characters that will be central to your story.
- Show genre in your beginning. If you're writing fantasy, show some magic or paranormal elements to give your reader the right expectations. It doesn't have to be big. I once started a story with a paragraph about a bully with some unusual talents. (Making my heroine's hair stand on end, for example.)
- Sensory details. Imagery. Give the readers details. There's a piece of paper on the counter. Is it rolled up? Folded? How big is it? Is it notebook paper? Parchment? A sticky note? Give smells. (That's a hard one, but it can instantly bring your characters into the setting.) The trick is to provide as much setting in the fewest words possible. If you give too much all at once, you'll boor your readers. Sneak those details in as you unfold the plot, character, and conflict.
This is the hard part. The part where all your ideas have to come together, in an interesting way, to set you up for your ending.
You needs lots of conflict here. Make your characters work hard. Make them suffer. I know it's hard, but trust me, as soon as things start to go right for your characters, your readers will put your book down. You need to constantly be stirring the pot.
If you've read my posts on sentence lite, you'll know what each scene (whether beginning, middle, or end) needs: protagonist (that has needs and is interesting), antagonist (who also has needs and is interesting), conflict (how their needs conflict with each other), a setting, and a twist. The twist is something unexpected. It moves the story forward.
In Heidi Thomas' article Prop Up Your Sagging Middles, she discusses some key questions you should ask yourself about each scene.
If you find that your middles are slim and/or your word count is too low, you'll love Dani Greer's article on Plumpers.
Throughout your book, you'll need strong scenes. This is crucial. I have to recommend Holly's Create Page-Turning Scenes Clinic. (Yes, I know I recommend her a lot, but she's the best I've found.)
This is where pantsers seem to have the most trouble. If you plan out you novel well, know where your novel's pulse is, and know your themes, then you should already know your ending. All you have to do is write to it.
But, here are some pointers:
Your ending, wherever it is, whatever happens, needs to connect back to your beginning. Somehow. I know it sounds crazy, but it's true. If there isn't a way to connect your ending to the first three pages of your story, then maybe you didn't begin in the right place.
At the beginning, you made your reader a promise. You told them, "This is what the book is about." Now you have to deliver on that promise.
For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone begins with the headmaster and a teacher discussing the fate of the boy who lived. How does it end? The boy who lived fought against the same villain and lived again. Some consider the first chapter to be more of a prologue, but it's still there in the second chapter. Uncle Vernon notices a number of strange happenings that are related to (surprise!) the boy who lived and the celebration of his conquest over the dark lord. Trust me. Your beginning needs to be similar to your ending.
Your characters need to be different. They need to change throughout the course of the story. Their needs changed, they've learned something about themselves, conquered a weakness, whatever. They can't be the same person they were on page one. Otherwise, there's no point in telling the story.
For clarification, I've posted a video on how endings are like beginnings here.
If you want to read this series from the beginning, here is Part 1 of What Every Writer Needs to Know About Plot and Structure.