This is a guest post by author John T. Biggs
Most readers approach a new novel—or piece of short fiction—the way five-year-olds add new foods to their dietary repertoire.
“Just a paragraph or two. You never know whether you’ll like it unless you try.” So, they ease into the stories slowly carefully, looking for a reason to quit before they’ve invested too much time and energy.
Most will decide whether to keep going by the time they finish the first 200 words. It doesn’t matter how fantastic the narrative gets on the third page or at the midpoint. If readers loose interest before they get there, they probably won’t get there at all.
A lot is riding on those first few paragraphs. Whether the story is a mystery, magic realism, or the purest form of literary fiction. Those beginning paragraphs have to literally hook the reader.
Most successful writers do this by introducing characters so fascinating that almost anyone would want to crawl into their heads for an hour or two and learn what makes them tick.
Don’t Start Writing Too Soon
Since characters are going carry the action of that narrative from the hook to the final page, writers should get to know as much as possible about them before putting a single word on the page. Here are five basic things an author should know about every major character before releasing them into the plot:
- What do they want?
- What do they need?
- What do they love?
- What do they hate?
- What are they afraid of?
It wouldn’t hurt to know what they eat for breakfast either, or how they take their coffee, and a few embarrassing moments that made them what they are today.
In addition to making the reader love (or at least like) a protagonist in the first 200 words, a good hook should stimulate curiosity, create a compelling problem, and hide a few Easter eggs if possible (hints at things that are likely to turn up later in the story so the reader will be searching for them).
Don’t Write the Opening First
Fortunately, a writer doesn’t have to come up with a hook at the beginning of the writing process. Novels are a massive piece of work. They contain back story, sub plots, and plot twists. They usually cover a substantial time period and the author can begin the narrative anywhere. Strategic revision of a manuscript is at least as important in building and maintaining interest as putting words on a page. The best starting point doesn’t have to be selected until a lot of writing has been done.
When the time finally comes, there are two general ideas about the best starting place for a story. Ab ovo (from the egg) and In media res (in the middle of things). In recent years starting in the middle of things, or at least the middle of the action has become the most popular way to open a story.
Two Common Mistakes
Once the research and brainstorming period is finished and the writer knows everything to know about important characters it is tempting to dump all that information at the very beginning of the story.
A data dump reads more like a newspaper article than a piece of fiction. The problem is, readers know what they are reading isn’t real and there is no compelling reason for them to commit it to memory. Successful writers let their readers participate in story development by dribbling enough information onto the page for them to figure out important things.
One way to channel the temptation to dump information is to hide Easter eggs. A few hints are planted in the first few paragraphs that will make the reader curious about things that might happen later in the story.
Mischaracterizing the story is not as common as dumping data, but it is equally serious.
Since the first 200 words are so important, writers are tempted to begin romances and cozy mysteries as if they were going to be thrillers. They start off with a major disaster (earthquake, airplane crash, terrorist attack) that has no real connection to the theme or plot.
Nothing is more misleading than starting with a dream. Readers are lured into a plot that isn’t actually happening.
Figurative language, particularly similes and metaphors are common techniques for writers using a literary style. Interesting language can enhance the reading experience and give readers a reason to keep turning pages, but it can easily call attention to the writing so much that it pulls readers out of the story.
Similes are especially easy to misuse. They come in two parts and often only the first part bears any clear relationship to the message conveyed in the first 200 words.
Bad simile: He had kind eyes and a little tremor that shook his head back and forth like an aspen leaf trembling in the wind.
Better simile: He had kind eyes and a little tremor that shook his head back and forth as if he were trying to refuse.
Many writers use dialogue in the first 200 words because it takes the reader right into a character’s mind with no description. Quotations can establish a mood and provide a lot of information with no ‘telling’ at all.
But the reader is barely into the story and doesn’t know anything about the speaker. Opening dialogue has to be short and should convey some insight into the character.
Prologues used to be a popular way to begin novels, but have fallen out of favor in recent years. A prologue automatically sticks the writer with two openings. That’s not necessarily bad, because every chapter has an opening of sorts. But prologues usually happen at an earlier time or a different place than the main narrative, and the protagonist of the prologue is usually not the protagonist of the main story. Writers often start a project with a prologue but by the end of the story they have found it is no longer needed.
A Compelling Opening Sentence
In recent years, it has become popular to hook readers with a blockbuster opening sentence. Here are two examples:
“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” ~Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner. 21 words
“They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.” ~Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked. 12 words
Compelling sentences like these work well in the hands of a skilled writer, but if there is even a hint of confusion or a minor misuse of words the effect is lost. If an author uses this kind of opening, readers will expect to be “thrilled” again every page or so.
Easing The Reader Into A Dramatic Moment
This is an in media res style of opening, usually after the main conflict is well underway. Information is dribbled in at an easy pace and there is plenty of time to hide Easter eggs and build curiosity.
While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out: and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. By day I sat on the foot of the bed straining to puzzle out the Dutch –language news on television (which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch) and when I gave up, I sat by the window staring out at the canal with my camel’s-hair coat thrown over my clothes—for I’d left New York in a hurry and the things I’d brought weren’t warm enough, even indoors.”~Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. 148 words (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
The Quicksand Approach
This method usually brings the reader into the story closer to the initiating incident, although it can work just as well with the in media res approach. The reader steps right into the scene with no especially compelling sentence, and no gradual introduction into the action. Dialogue works particularly well in this technique.
“Double stick orange today.” The H-Unit guard puts down his red and white insulated cooler and shakes hands with the Reverend Richard Harjo. “Strawberry tomorrow. Grape the day after.”
Richard knows the routine. Death row inmates get popsicles when the air conditioning can’t keep pace with summer. June, July, and August. Sometimes the first week in September.
“Name’s Anton Leemaster.” The guard points to his nametag. “Just transferred in from visitation.”~John T. Biggs, Popsicle Styx. 71 words
Opening Rule Number One: There Are No Rules
Some very creative and successful authors do things with openings they wouldn’t do in any other part of their narratives. They will sometimes start off with a paragraph which has the omniscient point of view typical of old time storytelling. This pov often involves extensive telling—but never data dumping. They spend as few words as possible pulling the reader into the story the way a mother pulls a child into a fairy tale and then they slide seamlessly into a different pov (usually third person limited) and the storyteller fades away.
Folks say he was born the same year the state was, 1907, but you won’t find a public record to prove that or deny it. Some say he was first cousin to Tom Joad and second-cousin-once removed to Pretty Boy Floyd’s family in Salisaw—except the Joads weren’t real Okies, they were a made up clan, and it’s certain the Floyds never claimed him. You’ll even hear it claimed from time to time that he was kin to our most famous favorite son, Will Rogers, but that’s just a tall tale. To be honest, the Oklahoma son Harlan Singer favored most was the one from Okemah, but we disowned that Okemah boy on account of he was a communist they say, and anyhow, Singer had vanished in the hills by the time Woody Guthrie began to make a reputation.”~Rilla Askew, Harpsong. 139 words
Eventually every story comes to an end whether we want it to or not. All those characters who occupied so much of the readers’ and writer’s time go back home to live their fictional lives while no one watching.
Endings are difficult, but they can be made substantially easier if the writer remembers they should be at least obliquely related to the beginning. The classic play, The Odd Couple is a perfect example. In the first scene and the last, men are gathered around a poker table. Even though their major conflict has been worked out, we know the characters are going on with their lives after the curtain closes.
Some authors hide an Easter egg in the opening paragraphs that is found in the closing scene. They give the reader a clue in the first 200 words so it will be clear when the story is over. Matching the ending with the opening gives readers a feeling of completion. A solid plot supported by two bookends.