Some time ago, visitors at the team blog Speculative Faith answered the question, “Would you keep reading?” about the first one hundred words of five unpublished manuscripts written by anonymous volunteers. Over fifty percent of those who participated chose one particular opening as one they would keep reading. Over fifty percent! That means for a published novel, over fifty percent of potential buyers who glance through the book in a bookstore or read an excerpt online might consider purchasing it.
Openings don’t guarantee sales, of course, but they will guarantee non-sales. If readers put the book back on the shelf or click away from the excerpt after reading the first page, they aren’t buying the book, at least not that day.
For aspiring writers, the opening holds the same kind of importance. This first paragraph, this first page of a manuscript is the introduction of your writing to a potential agent. Like any other first contact, and especially a business contact, it’s important to present a favorable first impression.
So, concerning a novel opening, what works and what doesn’t?
Keep in mind, like any other writing “rules,” some successful authors will ignore general principles about openings. The only real rule of writing is, does it work? Of course you, the author, may think it does, but what do all the readers who look at your work say?
Feedback, such as the authors received in the openings exercise at Speculative Faith, is vital to help answer that question. In addition to replying whether or not voters would keep reading, they also took time to explain why they did or did not think an opening worked.
Here is a compilation of the most oft-repeated reasons why voters thought an opening did not work:
- – confusing
- – disjointed
- – unnecessary words
- – no identification with the character
- – too much repetition
- – backstory interrupts the action
- – no urgency (importance)
- – no focus
- – unlikable character
- – no action
On the other hand, here’s why the commenters wanted to keep reading certain excerpts:
- – clear, tight writing
- – irony (odd contrast)
- – intrigue
- – created curiosity
- – a need to know (what happens next?)
- – suggestion of a larger world
- – humor
- – originality
- – promise of conflict
- – tension
- – interesting voice
Writer and blogger Fred Warren wrote a follow-up post to this exercise entitled “Give ‘Em The Hook” in which he focused on three particular opening techniques: creating mystery, immersing the reader in the story, and orienting him to a place.
Other writing instructors stress the importance of introducing the reader to an engaging character. The idea is, if readers care about the character, they will follow him to the ends of the earth, even if he does reprehensible things they don’t want him to do.
I remember having that “follow him to the ends of the earth” reaction to Frodo Baggins in The Return of the King, book three of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo accepted Gollum as their guide into Mordor, I knew it was a mistake. I wanted him to choose more wisely. In fact, I wasn’t sure if he shouldn’t turn around and take the ring to Gondor after all. None of the choices open to him seemed good, but following Gollum seemed like suicide. Nevertheless, I kept reading. Frodo’s questionable decision (in my view) didn’t dissuade me from reading on because I cared for him and wanted to know what would come of his choice.
Of course, the event I’m referring to didn’t occur in the opening of the book, but that serves to underline the fact that making a reader care as early as possible will keep him reading … up to a point. If the promise of the opening fails, and fails again and again, it’s possible for a hooked reader to squirm off the line!
Shortly after the exercise held at Speculative Faith, I conducted an additional informal study at my editing site to discover what elements in the opening of a novel grabbed readers’ attention and why.
From a small sampling of published novels, those who wished to participate voted for the opening that most hooked them into the story. Here are the top two, separated by only one vote.
I never believed in ghosts. Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.
It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep me away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze. (Fathom by Merrie Destefano)
Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch’s skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.
She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?
Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain, mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne. (Prophet by R. J. Larson)
From this informal survey, I draw several conclusions about openings that engage readers and hook them into the story.
The ones that attracted the most readers contained surprise or the unexpected — e.g. warm snow, seeing an apparent ghost.
They also created tension. From Fathom, for example, the tension is palpable when in the middle of a summer night, wind scratching tree branches against the window, the protagonist starts awake. Perhaps less so in The Prophet but still present is the tension created by the smeared ash “like menacing shadows.”
The openings that captured the attention of most readers also generated a question, whether spoken or unspoken. Why would a ghost visit a twelve-year-old? What was burning?
Another element that these openings share is evocative language. In Fathom: “… the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep me away.” And “some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.” In Prophet: “Tarnished snow,” “smear across her brown flesh,” and “mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square.”
The final element I notice in the top attention-getting entries is that they connect the reader with a character. Fathom does this in part because of the first person point of view. The reader is right with the character from the beginning, feeling what she feels, experiencing the same startling event she experienced.
Prophet creates a connection with the character through description and her actions. She’s observant, curious, unnerved, concerned. Her questioning draws the reader in to question with her.
In truth, there is no sure-fire formula for an intriguing opening that will hook readers, but writers won’t go wrong by surprising their audience, creating tension and questions, using evocative language, and connecting them with an interesting character.
Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in a Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. Most recently, she published the writing-helps book Power Elements of Story Structure, first in her Power Elements Of Fiction series. Power Elements Of Character Development is scheduled to come out this spring.
Becky’s editing credits include non-fiction and fiction alike, most notably four titles in the Dragons in Our Midst and Oracle of Fire series by Bryan Davis as well as two titles in Jill Williamson’s Mission League series. You can learn more about her editing services and read her writing tips at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
About Power Elements Of Story Structure
Power Elements Of Story Structure, first in the series Power Elements Of Fiction, provides practical help for beginning writers as well as reminders for seasoned novelists. This informative writing manual addresses important elements such as where to start a novel, openings that hook readers, backstory, creating tension, foreshadowing, and much more. Together with intermittent writing exercises, the instruction serves as a concise guide for writing a novel.
“Anyone dreaming of writing a novel needs this book as a guide.” – Sally E. Stuart, founder of the Christian Writers’ Market Guide