By Lisabet Sarai
If you don’t grab your readers’ attention in your first paragraph, you’ve lost them.
Well, that’s what the experts say, at least. Like all absolute statements, this one awakens my critical side. Certainly, I’ve read, and enjoyed, many books that began with a whimper rather than a bang. On the other hand, an effective, engaging opening can make the difference between someone buying your book or moving on to the next author.
Here are the first two paragraphs of one of the best books I’ve read in the past decade, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern:
The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
I had heard nothing about this novel. Seeking a birthday gift for my husband, my attention attracted by the dramatic black and white cover, I picked it up from a bookstore table. As I often do, I read the first page to gauge the style. I was hooked. I had to know more. Later, I bought several other copies as presents for friends and relatives. I’ve recommended it to many other people.
An author’s dream. All because of that dynamite opening.
Of course that’s not strictly true. If the rest of the book had not been as amazing as its first page, I would not be singing its praises to all and sundry. On the other hand, without that hook, I might never have read it at all.
This incident occurred in a bricks and mortar bookstore, but the same phenomenon can occur online. Amazon and Smashwords both allow you to sample the first ten to twenty percent of the books they sell. I don’t know how often people flip through my first few pages on Amazon, but Smashwords gives you these figures. Many more people have sampled my indie books than have bought them.
Maybe I need better openings. Maybe I shouldn’t be giving you advice at all. On the other hand, I do feel that I’ve learned a few things since my first novel (which has a rather awful first sentence, based on my current evaluation).
So how can you hook your readers? How can you write more effective initial paragraphs? Here are some suggestions.
Stimulate the reader’s curiosity.
Your first page can and should raise questions in the reader’s mind. What’s going on? Where are we? Who are the actors? What are their relationships?
Here’s the start of my short story The Last Amanuensis:
My hands no longer tremble when I pierce his papery skin. I’ve learned how much force to apply, how to tilt the hollow needle just enough to fill the tiny wound with color without blurring the line. I know what he can bear. I can read the change in his breathing that tells me he needs a break.
Although this one paragraph reveals a great deal, it also makes the reader wonder about the scenario. Clearly the narrator is creating a tattoo, but who is the subject? Who is speaker? He or she seems to have done this many times—why?
Provide a lightning introduction to your characters.
We all know that great characters are the key to keeping readers’ attention. One way to open a tale is let your characters immediately speak up, so readers get a sense of their quirks, personalities, and motivations.
This is how my erotic suspense novel Exposure begins:
I strip for the fun of it. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It’s not the money. I could make nearly as much working at the mill and keep my clothes on, but then I’d have to suck up to the bosses. Here at the Peacock, I’m the one in charge, and I like it that way.
Only five sentences, but already we know quite a bit about Stella. She’s opinionated and self-confident, the total opposite of a doormat. She doesn’t care must about society’s judgments. She’s probably not highly educated, given her short sentences, colloquial vocabulary and marginal grammar. And she’s a stripper—a fact relevant to both the noir suspense and erotic aspects of the story.
Dump the reader into the middle of the action.
I learned this from Kathleen Bradean. Years ago she critiqued a short story of mine on the Storytime list. I knew something about the piece was not working. It felt leaden and plodding, especially at the start. However, I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
Kathleen suggested that I throw away the first couple of paragraphs, starting the story smack in the middle of a scene. I followed her advice. The story gained new energy and with it, new interest. I found the change wrought by a relatively minor edit quite astonishing.
One way to get the reader involved in ongoing action is to begin with a line of dialogue. I’ve been using this technique quite a bit recently.
Suzy might as well have stuck my finger in an electric socket. I forced myself to breathe.
(From The Late Show)
“Ginger? Do I taste ginger?”
“Uh—yes, that’s right, sir…”
“Ginger in coq au vin? That’s practically sacrilege, Ms Wong.”
(From Her Secret Ingredient)
“On the desk, Miss Archer. Arms out, palms flat.”
I should have realized Greg had something up his sleeve. Normally he hates big parties. His work requires him to interact with all sorts of people, but I know he finds it stressful. To relax he prefers more—how should I put it?—intimate gatherings. So I really should have understood he had some deviant plan in mind when he told me about the Halloween masquerade.
(From Coming in Costume)
Okay, so maybe I’m overusing this device!
Use short, direct sentences and pay attention to the prosody.
Readers have limited attention spans, especially nowadays. Hence, all else being equal, you should keep the sentences in your first paragraph as short and direct as you can manage. I’d never recommend that you dumb down your English to increase the size of your market, but first sentences are almost like advertising slogans. They should be brief and catchy.
To enhance the impact, take advantage of the fact that repetition and rhyme stimulate parts of the brain not involved in the literal interpretation of words. These elements of prosody give sentences more impact and make them more memorable.
Consider the example from The Night Circus. The first sentence —the first paragraph—is a mere five words. The paragraph break provides a breath, a beat. The next sentence is longer, but the repetition carries it forward: “No announcements… no paper notices …. no mentions.” The next sentence also uses parallelism: “It is… it was…”.
Here’s the first sentence from one of my personal favorite stories, Like Riding a Bicycle:
My wife is on her knees.
Okay, I’m probably my own biggest fan, but I get a little chill when I read that, especially when it becomes clear that this is not (at the moment!) a BDSM scene. The stress patterns (three iambs) seem to me to perfectly fit the meaning.
So, following up on the recommendations above, is there anything you should avoid in your openings?
Well, there’s Elmore Leonard’s famous advice: “Never open a book with the weather.” I’ve broken that rule a few times, deliberately, when the weather was an essential aspect of the plot or the setting, but in general I tend to agree. Perhaps I can restate it more generally: do not begin with a long description of things that are tangential to the story.
Of course there are always exceptions. One opening strategy mimics the common cinematographic technique of the wide pan over the scene, focusing in on a character. For instance, you might show us a narrow country lane winding between hedgerows, the sun setting behind the purple hills, the freshening breeze starting to stir the trees. Then, as we look more closely, we notice a lone figure just coming over a knoll, trudging along, weighed down with what seems like a heavy knapsack. We cannot see his face at first, but as the walker approaches, we realize it’s actually a young woman, dressed in jeans and a ragged jacket, a tight cap crammed over her lank brown hair….
This approach works well with an omniscient point of view, when you want to keep some distance between the reader and your characters.
I have a rule of my own, born of reading a lot of romance: never begin a book with your character’s name. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read that start something like this.
“Anna Wilkins shut off her monitor, leaned back in her office chair and closed her eyes. If she had to review one more report, she’d scream.”
“The clang of an alarm woke Reggie Borden from a restless sleep. He was on his feet, pulling on his work pants, before he realized it had been a dream.”
This is a personal peeve, but I find this sort of opening (which is very common) really annoying. It’s even worse when the author feels inclined to tell us, in the very first paragraph, about the characters’ occupations, appearance, relationships, and so on.
“Anna Wilkins, CEO of Anastyle, Inc, shut off her monitor, leaned back in her office chair, ran her fingers through her blond curls, and closed her sapphire blue eyes. If she had to review one more report from Mark Reynolds, her ambitious Director of Sales, she’d scream.”
“The clang of an alarm woke veteran fire fighter Reggie Borden from a restless sleep. He was on his feet, pulling on his work pants and slipping the suspenders over his broad shoulders, before he realized it had been a dream—a dream about Linda and that terrible day two years ago.”
Rather than making the reader curious, authors who start their books like this seem to feel the need to convey as much information as they can, as early as possible.
Resist the urge to explain, especially in the first few paragraphs of a story. Make the reader wonder who these people are, what they are doing, and why. The reader doesn’t need to know, right away, your characters’ names or what they look like!
I’ve counseled brevity, yet here I am on the fifth page of the essay. Guess I should stop!
In fact, I often have trouble with endings. I’ll talk about that next month.