I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about openings lately. As a reader, I’ve found myself impatient, only willing to give a story a few paragraphs and maybe a few skimmed pages to hook me. And by “hook” I just mean to give me some hint of what’s to come that will keep me turning the page. To give you an example, I love books about people trapped in places: deserted islands, life rafts, snowed-in ski lodges, etc (it’s no wonder I like zombie stories!). Recently I picked up two books about people trapped on a deserted island: one started in the airport and I knew right away that the plane crash would be imminent and you better believe I kept turning the page. The other started… elsewhere. Not even on the day of the plane crash. After flipping ahead and not seeing someone step on the plane in chapter two, I put it down.
So, from that example the writer in me is like, “Great, plane crash on page one and we’re good, right?” Not so fast. Because why would I care about the plane crashing if I didn’t know any of the people on board? And how am I going to see how this changes their lives if I know nothing about how they lived before they stepped on the plane?
To me this is the tension inherent in balancing the “inciting incident” of a story with the necessity of establishing and showing a slice of the ordinary world. Michael Hague, one of my favorite authors on craft, describes the necessity of the setup this way:
“The first 10% of your screenplay is what I term the SETUP, during which you must transport the reader from the real world into the world you’ve created, as well as get them emotionally involved with the setting and characters before your main story line begins.” [source]
At the end of the setup, you hit your first turning point which Hague calls “the opportunity” but is also known as the inciting incident. This is the “but for this moment the story doesn’t happen.” It’s when Thelma and Louise decide to go on the road trip — if they stayed home, no movie. It’s also usually where the rubber hits the road — when something new happens in the character’s life that starts them down a new road. Often, it’s where the story gets exciting (i.e. the plane crashing in my example in the first paragraph).
And this is the issue: how do you keep a reader interested if the really exciting thing doesn’t happen until you’re roughly 10% of the way into the story? (and note that 10% is a rigid formula for screenwriting but is flexible in novels) One way is to front-load the book with an action laced prologue and then fill in the backstory later. The benefit of this is instant action/tension, the difficulty is that (a) you may not get the payoff of that action if the reader isn’t invested in the characters yet and (b) if the pacing slows in the second chapter as you backpedal, you may lose readers. Think about a James Bond movie — there’s always a high speed chase or some such right at the beginning which reels us in and yet we’re not emotionally engaged in the outcome of the chase because we’re not connected to the characters yet.
Another option is to make the ordinary world fantastical. A great example of this is Jen Nielsen’s The False Prince (you can click inside to read the first pages). The main character is a thief and so his ordinary world is one instantly imbued with action and intrigue. Plus she does a great job getting the voice across — reading that first page you know what you’re getting into and you know the main character is going to be getting in enough trouble to keep the story interesting.
A third option is foreshadowing. I was recently discussing this with Maggie Steifvater whose latest book, The Raven Boys, starts with the line: “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love,” followed a few paragraphs later by: “If Blue were to kiss her true love, he would die.” To me, this creates immediate tension: you know this is a book about true love, about predictions, and about death. You know there’s going to eventually be an impossible situation where Blue falls in love and has to decide whether she’ll risk a kiss. In two lines, you know one of the internal and external arcs of this story. Immediately the author has set forth a question you know the book/series will be answering. And because she’s hooked you, she can then take the time to show the ordinary world (which isn’t all that ordinary since the main character is the daughter of psychics).
There’s a lot the opening of a book needs to do: introduce the world, introduce the characters, establish a “before” snapshot, create an emotional bond with the hero, etc. And often the difficulty is that the ordinary world of most people is… well… ordinary. Boring. The trick is to find a way to show this ordinary world in an interesting way which of course is much easier said than done. Often it’s tempting to just skip the setting and dive right into the inciting incident but this can leave your reader feeling disengaged. Because here’s the thing — at its heart every book is about a character who desires a goal and faces obstacles in achieving that goal (via Hague). If we don’t care about the character, we won’t care if she achieves her goal. And if we don’t care about the goal, even the most exciting obstacles will seem dull. So the first thing the reader has to do is care about the character, otherwise the rest of the story is meaningless.
To get a sense of what works, I suggest reading as many openings as you can. The Amazon “look inside” feature is great for this: start going down the list of bestsellers and see what openings grab you (don’t skip the indie and self-pubbed). Read in your genre and in others, debut books and established pros. Think about what makes you keep reading and what makes you put it down — this will help inform your decisions about how to open your own book.
And if you have other tips for how to start a book in a way that keeps the reader turning the page (or examples of books that do a great job of this), share them in the comments!