Assignment for next week: write the first three pages (or so) of your next project. You may not end up using these pages to complete this story, but you will have practiced how to write effectively, and that practice will help you as you go on to other projects.
Today we talked about how to get our story, novel or memoir going. The guidelines are very simple, regardless of genre. You want to get your reader hooked, or involved in the work as quickly as possible.
If you have been in any of my writing classes, you have heard the mantra, Show, don’t tell. The point is to paint with words, so you reader sees in his or her head the same picture that you see.
Regardless of the length of your project, the same things are important, hook your reader and promise them a great ride. The following notes should help you get your started.
We started class this week discussing the following notes about how to draw your reader (or agent) in and sell your work through those first pages. I found these great notes at https://prowritingaid.com/art/985/how_to_start_off_a_novel.aspx
Check that site out for more help.
Guide to Novel Openings (or Short Stories or even Memoirs)
Why is it so important to get your opening perfect?
The sad fact is, if your first few pages and chapters aren’t outstanding, the chances of anyone reading the rest of your book are slim. You have to make readers feel compelled to choose your story over all the others, and you have to do it before they’ve invested too much time.
1) You need to prove you’re worthy of the reader’s time.
Readers need to be convinced you are going to reward their investment. If you can’t delight, intrigue and touch their hearts in the first few pages, they will not trust you’ll be able to do it at all. This is amplified if you’re trying to get noticed by agents. For them, the potential investment is vastly greater and the stakes far higher. Agents have a very limited amount of time in which to make a judgement about your story, compared to the hundreds of others they get sent each week. So they have no choice but to make snap judgments. There literally isn’t time in the day to read every manuscript in full just in case the payoff is unexpectedly outstanding.
2) First impressions leave a mark
If you clearly establish a character to be kind and generous in the first chapter, then the reader will often see them that way until the end, even if they don’t do anything kind or generous for the rest of the book.
Similarly, if you set a very creepy tone at the beginning, then the reader will read all the other words through the same chilling lens, even if they are perfectly innocent on the surface. A painstakingly designed beginning will pay dividends for the whole book.
3) The beginning sets up the end
Similarly, the right beginning sets the foundations for a gripping climax. The conclusion of the book should be foreshadowed in the first scene, though of course the reader will have no idea how on first read.
Many stories ‘bookend’ the narrative, placing the main character in a situation in the climactic scene that mirrors the opening scene. Using this technique, the author can clearly demonstrate how the protagonist has changed.
It’s also common to introduce the central theme of the story: its underlying message. Whether the theme is ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ or ‘love leads to heartbreak’ or whatever, it should be evident in the opening chapters.
4. Exceptions to the rule
Of course, not all books start by grabbing you by the eyeballs. You will be able to find many examples of books that take a while to get going, and that have beginnings that plod rather than spring from the starting blocks.
Some of those books became classics before there was so much competition (there are around 34 times as many books published each year today than 100 years ago. Others may be books written by already established authors. These writers have already built up a credit bank of trust with their readers, so have the luxury of being able to break the rules if they wish. Their readers already know their investment will be rewarded.
But if you’re trying to break into this highly competitive market for the first time, and you’re writing now rather than in 1800, you need to do everything you can to give your book the best start in life.
5. The rule of breadcrumbs
This is a simple but powerful idea that asserts that if someone likes the first breadcrumb, they will take a step towards the next one and give that a taste too. If the reader likes your first sentence, they will probably read the first paragraph. And if they like the first paragraph, there’s a good chance they’ll keep going until the end of the first page. If they’re still convinced, they’ll read to the end of the scene, then the first chapter, and so on.
So you need to lay out a series of breadcrumbs that leads your reader into the depths of the story you’ve created, until they have no choice but to follow the path you’ve laid out for them until the end. Look at each of these parts of your opening in turn, and try to work out whether there is enough in each incrementally larger subsection to entice someone to read the next. (Credit for this concept goes to Christopher Moore, via Chuck Wendig.)
Nuts and Bolts or How to do all that?
Five goals for the first chapter
1) Grab the reader’s attention
If you saw a hippo wearing sunglasses walking down the street, you’d give it at least a second look, right? Many authors ensure their readers aren’t going anywhere by grabbing their attention with something unusual or surprising.
Done right, this technique establishes to the reader right away that you are an author with a great imagination, who is going to delight them with things they can’t anticipate on the journey you take together.
Does your character live in a cupboard under some stairs, or in the Museum of Indian Rural Art? Is your main character a murdered teenager? Did their grandmother just explode? Or has the school gym been turned into a dormitory?
Examples from: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Aru Shah and the End of Time, The Lovely Bones, The Crow Road, The Handmaid’s Tale.
If you can make the reader do a double-take within the first few sentences and raise questions in their mind, you’re off to a good start. This doesn’t have to be in the very first line, but it will be all the more powerful if it is.
Check out this great resource analysing amateur writers’ opening sentences.
2) Establish the setting
This is a basic requirement if you don’t want your readers to be confused. By the end of the first page, the reader should know when and where the story is taking place.
If they’re still not sure whether it’s Ancient Greece or Outer Space, they’re going to feel confused, and if they feel confused they’re not immersed in the story’s world. After all, you’re the one navigating, and if they feel lost, they’re going to have doubts about continuing to follow you.
The facts of the setting don’t have to be spelled out specifically, e.g. “in 18th century France”, although this works if handled correctly. Time and place can be established through description of surroundings (courtyards, parlors, chamber-pots) style of writing (“a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages”) and names of the main characters (Jean-Baptiste Grenouille) or of other historical figures (de Sade, Bonaparte).
(Above examples are from the first few paragraphs of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.)
Two more subtle aspects of setting are tone and genre. These are interwoven with time and place, and should also be established in the same way. The reader wants to know if this is the sort of book that appeals to them. Is it quirky? Serious? Gloomy? Creepy?
Whatever it is, they need to know within the first few pages, or preferably the first few paragraphs.
3) Make the reader care about the character Making a reader care about a character is probably the most reliable way to keep them reading.
Here are a few techniques for building empathy with characters, drawn from Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays that Sell:
Showing a character suffering from undeserved misfortune makes our heart go out to them, because we can imagine ourselves in the same situation, and how we would feel.
Similarly to undeserved misfortune, if we see a character under threat, we may worry about them. They don’t have to be hanging off the edge of a cliff by their fingernails, it could be that they are about to enter a job interview or stand up on stage.
Displaying a valued trait (e.g. good-hearted or funny)
We tend to like people who are kind and warm-hearted, even if they have many flaws. Likewise, we can’t help liking a character who makes us laugh, even if they are otherwise the most reprehensible rogue.
Displaying mastery of a skill
There’s something thrilling about watching someone excel at a skill. Whether it’s archery, reading poetry or playing guitar, when we see someone displaying a skill they have completely mastered, we admire them.
In touch with their own power
In a similar vein to being masterful at a particular skill, a character may have mastery over their own presence. People who aren’t afraid to speak their mind, and who don’t seem to worry about the opinions of those around them often leave us in awe while we wrangle with our own insecurities.
Exercise: note down everything the reader learns about your protagonist in your first chapter – and don’t cheat! Make sure you don’t note anything that you know as an author that doesn’t actually appear in that first chapter.
4) Raise gripping story questions
A powerful way to glue your reader to their seat is to raise questions in their mind that possess them so powerfully they can’t sleep until they know the answer. Human beings are naturally curious and generally like to be challenged.
But don’t mistake curiosity for confusion. When raising questions in the reader’s mind, it is possible to fall into the trap of withholding information that simply confuses the reader.
Curiosity arises from wondering what’s going to happen next. Confusion arises from not understanding what’s going on now.
5) Introduce conflict
Conflict is what creates gripping stories, and keeps readers turning pages. If your reader cares about the character, but that character is not facing any kind of conflict or threat, then the reader can comfortably go off and make a cup of tea without having to worry. But if that character is facing challenges, then the reader will need to make sure they’re okay before they can put down the book.
You may be familiar with the idea that before the true adventure starts, you need to establish the status quo – the character’s mundane, everyday life. So how do you open with conflict, when you’re trying to show your character’s mundane existence? By showing their everyday conflicts.
Challenges don’t have to be life-threatening. A good writer can have us on the edge of our seat over catching a bus, or finding a pair of glasses. So you don’t need to open with the character having to dodge a giant, spiky curveball (unless they’re Indiana Jones and actually do that for a living). You can show them facing frustrations that they deal with on a regular basis.
Perhaps they work in a job they hate with a leering boss and rude customers. Or maybe they’re trying to manage seven kids who are running rings around them.
By opening with minor catastrophes, you also leave scope for ever-increasing challenges and peril, which will eventually make these everyday conflicts look like small fry that they could gobble up in one gulp.