Editors and agents make a decision about your story based on the first few pages—sometimes the first paragraph. They don’t have the time or patience to read the whole thing if the opening doesn’t grab them. You need a good “hook” to get the reader’s attention and keep him turning the page.
The hook doesn’t need to be aggressive. You can reach out and grab your reader by the throat, refusing to let go, or you can reach out and wrap your reader in a warm embrace and invite her to follow your story. Both work equally well, but either way, your story should have a hook. It should generate a feeling of empathy in your reader for your protagonist. The reader must care about this character enough to want to know what happens to him.
The tone and voice of your opening suggest the type of story to follow. Gritty language and a cynical narrator should mean a detective novel, thriller, or something similar. If the story turns out to be a sweet romance, you may lose the reader because the opening will have been a lie.
What kind of story do you think each of these examples will be?
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” Raymond Chandler, Red Wind
“The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” Douglas Adams, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”
Your opening makes promises to your reader, which must be kept or you’ll break faith and lose them for good. Some of these promises include the following:
- Events in the first scene are important to the story.
- Characters in the first scene are important to the story.
- The mood and tone in the first scene foreshadow the mood and tone for the rest of the story.
- The narrative voice will be consistent throughout the story.
- Conflicts in the first scene will be developed and then resolved through the course of the story.
- Themes hinted at will be expanded and explored through the course of the story.
In the Beginning
Your story should start at the logical beginning, the start of the action. Don’t start with background information on your characters—impatient readers will either drop the story or skip ahead to the actual action. Also avoid starting at the climax or most exciting point of the story because then most of what follows will be background or flashback to fill in up to that point, and the reader could find it boring, already knowing where the story is headed.
You should try to start in the middle of some action. Identify the moment that starts your plot, the scene that precipitates the story itself. This is usually a moment of change for the protagonist. In a love story, it could be the moment the two characters first meet. In a detective story, it could be the moment the detective finds the first body. Just make sure something is happening in the opening paragraph.
As scifi author James Gunn wrote in the December 2011 issue of The Writer magazine, “After that, background information—exposition—can be filled in as necessary. …Once questions have been raised in the reader’s mind, exposition loses its curse by becoming answers that the reader actually wants. Giving the reader incentives makes all the difference.”
Don’t make your reader wonder about the time, place, and point of view of the story or you’ll frustrate, confuse, and possibly lose them. Insert small details to provide these clues from the start to give your reader the grounding necessary to focus on the story itself.
“I’d picked up my Globe at Leon’s store and was bumping over a Maine dirt road on a Saturday morning in late August, taking the long way back to Alex’s house, when I spotted the woman shuffling along up ahead of me.” William G. Tapply, Cutter’s Run
This short opening provides all of the following information to the reader:
- First Person point of view
- Time of day and year
- Physical location in Maine
- Introduces a secondary character, Alex
- Sets up the start of the plot with the woman shuffling along
Write of an encounter between your protagonist and one or more other characters which precedes the timeframe of your actual story.
Write a background story about your antagonist. Make your reader empathize with the motivations of the antagonist. If your antagonist is a situation rather than a person, write a background story about that.
Write the opening scene of your story. Focus on trying to write a good “hook.” It doesn’t have to be polished at this point, but be sure that you’re starting at the best place in your story, and that you take the points discussed in this lesson into consideration. Keep in mind that nothing is written in stone at this point, so your opening could completely change.
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