Patience is a virtue most people don’t have time to wait for—this is especially true of readers.
Life in the twenty-first century is hectic, so as a writer you must grab the reader and yank them into your tale, lest they be drawn away by any of a thousand distractions vying for their attention. (I read a study that determined, on average, people check their cell phone over 200 times a day!).
While writing for newspapers, I learned the basic tenets of news and article writing. My edgy, squinty-eyed editor explained that news stories are built as an inverted V, the most important elements listed at the pointed top: Who, what, when, where, why, and how. Fiction writing is much the same.
The beginning of your story or novel (those first few words or couple paragraphs) is called the Hook, and is critical to your success. I refer to it as the “calling” or the “invite” where your job as creator is to tantalize the reader and pull them deeper into the story.
Entice the reader with excitement at the outset. This is not the place for Backfill, which is often called “Info Dump.” The history of your world and characters, ideally, should be sprinkled throughout the action, shedding bits of light as the story grows and clarifies. There is time for backfill, but gone are the days of James Fenimore Cooper’s technique of spending pages of description prior to getting to the point, and thus forward movement.
Grab the reader by the lapel and force them into your world. Here’s the first paragraph of my short story, Eyes of Destiny.
Kolvett’s stomach recoiled, churning, the mealy bread threatening to lurch onto slick planks as the Emperor’s war galley lifted and fell on the rolling sea. Shuffling with small steps measured by chains connecting his ankles, Kolvett squinted past white caps at land peaking above the horizon—the shore was the gondrag’s destination, and for whatever reason, him with it. He glanced at his wrists where bloody sores reminded him there are shackles other than steel that bind men.
This opening paragraph attempts to do several things:
- Introduces the character, Kolvett, whose story this is. In most cases, I like the character tag in the first sentence because character is what all stories are about in the end. If the reader cannot associate with the character and does not care what happens to them, they won’t continue reading. Losing a reader is the worst thing for a writer.
- Gives the setting and implies an earlier time in history: Emperor’s war galley lifted and fell on the rolling sea. At this point, time and placement is unknown and will be revealed later in the story.
- Sets up a problem: Shuffling with small steps measured by chains connecting his ankles . . . Kolvett is bound and being led somewhere, but does not know where or why—the shore was the gondrag’s destination . . . The use of the word, gondrag, which was earlier described as the Emperor’s war galley indicates the fantasy element of the story.
- Mystery: . . . and for whatever reason, him with it. Every story needs an element of mystery, if nothing more than the reader’s question of, What is going to happen?
- A promise of something more: He glanced at his wrists where bloody sores reminded him there are shackles other than steel that bind men.
One of the best tools you can use as a writer is adding items in your beginning that start your reader asking questions: Who is Kolvett? Why is he bound? Where is he being taken? Why has he been kept alive, and who are his captors?
Another example from a work in progress, a story entitled Nychelle’s Gate.
Nychelle staggered through the tent flap, gasping, and fell to her knees on the dusty floor. She spun to face her mother and father. “I won’t do it,” she spat out, tasting blood from the Elder’s backhand. That was not the worst of being “taken,” though, nor the most painful, and far from the most humiliating. She shuddered at the all-too-recent memory, and ignored the stickiness down there.
Again, the opening paragraph attempts to accomplish the following:
- Introduce the main character, Nychelle.
- Gives the setting, at least at this point in the story, being the tent and probably that of her parents. Using “tent” implies they are nomadic and have not yet reached the advanced culture of developing towns or cities. Or they are outsiders. Either way, there is some mystery as to the situation of the people that populate the story.
- Confrontation by her dialogue, “I won’t do it” shows a problem, and that her parents are at the center of it. This conflict is geared to raise the tension of the scene.
- There are other hints within these 64 words such as the hierarchy of the culture (Elder), which indicates a clan rather than a kingdom, that she had been struck (tasted blood from the Elder’s backhand), and that she endured something cringe-worthy, (she shuddered at the all-too-recent memory, and ignored the stickiness down there).
- It hints at Nychelle’s character: strong and defiant, even against great odds of opposing her parents and the Elder.
There are many ways to start a story—the important element is convincing the reader early on that the time put into reading your story is well spent. To do that, accomplish these five things:
Begin your story with action, “something” happening to your character.
Put your character in a time and place (setting).
Through conflict, show the character’s problem as early as possible.
Hints (foreshadowing) are good.
An element of mystery will draw the reader forward into the next story section.
Take a look at the beginning of a current work in progress to see if you have enticed the reader; if not, rework the piece with the items discussed at the forefront.
See You on the Next Page,
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