Monday, October 11, 2010

An Opening Lead that Captures Readers

Browsers in a bookstore scan the shelves, eyes moving rapidly from book to book. The process the same online; if anything, the scrutiny is faster. In a store, if your books are spine-out rather than face-out, you have only your title and your humble name to get the buyer to pick up your book. If your book is face-out, you have cover art and blurbs in your favor. Assuming you get past these hurdles, the browser then rapidly scans the jacket copy (if hardback) or the back cover (if paperback). Similar information is available online. Many factors here are out of your control. The editor may change the title you slaved over. You may have little or nothing to say about cover art and jacket copy. Blurbs may come from reviews (out of your control) or advance readers, whom you may have at least selected.

If your book is still in the customer's physical or online "hands" at this point (and sadly, many are not), the hook comes into play. That’s the main tool that you, the author, have under your control. It's roughly the first couple of pages of a book, say 500 words, which is about all a browser is willing to stand up and read in the aisle of the store or flip through using the "Look Inside" feature (which not all online books have, cutting their chances at this point).

If your book is easy to set down before the reader has a chance to become involved with your wonderful characters and plot, then the book will be set down and the reader will go on to something else. If you can capture a reader's interest right away, chances are they'll still be with you at the next critical point, which is around fifty pages into the book. The "fifty-page fizzle" can prevent readers from finishing your book, and if that's the case, it's not very likely they'll try your next.

You may have even less time to impress an editor or agent, since they are accustomed to rapid decisions. In some cases, only your first paragraph or page is read to determine whether to spend precious time on the rest. What can the agent possibly glean from so few words? Your professionalism (spelling, grammar, and punctuation), your presentation (paper choice, font type and size, and manuscript formatting), and your prose (genre and your voice, which is a combination of your writing style and the characterization of the protagonist) are all on display to discerning eyes.

So how do you make those first pages bear up under all these important tasks? 

You can’t do it with a lengthy description of your protagonist's bedroom when he/she wakes up (unless it's a pitch-black, stinking dungeon cell and your protagonist, who has no idea how he got there, is awakened by rats nipping at his nose) or by describing the weather (unless your protagonist is being slammed around by a tornado or carried along in a flash flood, clinging to the remnants of her front door with bloody fingers). Finally, you don’t cheat the reader by having wild happenings occur and then having the protagonist wake up—it’s all been a dream. If you are going to use one of these three overused openings (morning surroundings/routine, weather, dream), then you’ve got to have a totally original, engaging slant to compensate.

A key word in those "don'ts" above is description. Make your description minimal, which doesn't mean it can't be vivid. Focus on a few well-chosen, evocative details and let them stand in for heavy description. Be sure to draw the reader into your story with sensory description that appeals to more senses than just sight.

Try to make your description do double duty in building character as well. Make sure you are not in a headlong rush to explain everything in the first few pages. Prune backstory to an absolute minimum. Many new writers fall into the trap of telling the reader everything they need to know about a character and/or situation in the first chapter—even in the first couple of paragraphs. Hold out longer—use the “layers of an onion” approach. Instead of getting bogged down in backstory, toss the reader into an ongoing situation and leave the explanation for later. Make the reader wonder about what’s going to happen next by planting the seeds of intrigue right away. That’s the start of a page-turner! Intrigue can result from something as simple yet chilling as a threatening phone call late at night, so don’t reach into artificiality.

One thing your opening should convey is a strong sense of the tone of the book, so let your voice be heard. Introduce a main character (villain or protagonist) in an intriguing way, preferably in an action situation or a situation that hints strongly of action or conflict to come. Convey an immediate sense of place. Don’t have your exciting action taking place with the characters floating in a generic setting. Otherwise it's easy to drift away, and if the TV remote is at hand, you may have lost your audience.

Cut to the chase. Sometimes you may write an entire first chapter and find your actual lead somewhere in the middle of chapter one—or even in chapter two or three—because you began with too much explanation. In that case, lop off the unnecessary part to pare down to the true opening. You can always work in all that explanation later, if it was important. Then polish, polish, polish. You'll probably rewrite your lead twenty times or more. Read it aloud. If your voice is stumbling over awkward phrases or dragging, reflecting a glacial pace, you're not done.

AIM for Action, Intrigue, and Minimal but sensory description.
ANCHOR your reader in a character, a setting, and a situation.

Here is a sample of an opening of less than 500 words, from an unpublished novel of mine. As you read through it, keep in mind the principles discussed above. They're all present in this sample.

“Damn you and every other man!” Tsehaye screamed the moment the contraction released her taunt body. “May your scrotums rot and your members drop off!” 

The curse was loosely aimed at the men in the room with her, but intended for the one who’d gotten her in this condition in the first place, the one who, by custom, would not witness the birth. A woman may want a child with all her heart, and love the man who fathered it, but the process of bringing that child into the world has never endeared any man to her. 

The cords of Tsehaye’s neck relaxed and she sank back into the birthing bed. Carly squeezed the woman’s hand and tried to get her to breathe shallow and fast. Her own chest rose and fell in sympathy panting, and sweat sheathed her body. She was tired, and she could only imagine how tired the woman on the bed was. The labor had gone on a long time, but the clan leader’s young wife was determined to win the woman’s battle with nothing to ease her way, as it should be. 

The talk in the village had centered on the birth for the past month. It was said that Tsehaye carried Nebru Lëj, the Leopard Child, a boy of many talents and great strength who came only once in many generations.

Six Americans, including herself, were jammed into the small delivery room. They were in a medical clinic in the southeastern Ethiopian region of Ogaden. Air floating in the window of the clinic had a scorched sand smell, even though the sun had set hours ago. The lights in the room were running on a generator prodded into working. The dim, yellow glow made it seem that the room was filled with candles. It could have been romantic, but the trays of surgical kits ruined the mood. 

Carly had been with her throughout, and she had attuned herself to the rhythms of Tsehaye’s labor. Their life experiences were very different, but here in this clinic room, they had bonded in the sudden, intense way that the drama of childbirth can bring. Carly tried to stretch, but her muscles were tightly wound. She felt as though she’d been squeezing the muscles of her stomach and buttocks for an eternity, and her thighs ached with tension. 

A cool shower would be nice, followed by iced tea with mint and sugar. I’d even settle for a cool breeze.

 “You’re doing great. A couple more pushes and it’ll be over,” Carly said, hoping with all her might that it was true. 

“A man should not see this. Or hear it. You alone will catch my son,” Tsehaye said, in her heavily accented English. “Or get out of my way and let me do it myself. Get the rest of these people out of here. I do not need a doctor, I need room to breathe!”


  1. “May your scrotums rot and your members drop off!”

    OMG! Love that sentence! I laughed out loud while at my university computer lab. The other people in the room looked at me as if I was weird or crazy or something. hahahahaha....

  2. Great post. I've read a lot of first time writers that do the information dump in the first chapter. Big turn off. I like the onion metaphor. Some authors manage to pick that great first line and everyone knows what book you are talking about just from that.
    "My philosophy is pretty simple—any day nobody’s trying to kill me is a good day in my

    one of the most recent first few pages that pulled me in was The Scent of Shadows by Vicki Pettersson. I remember reading and thinking "snap! this is gonna be a good one" .
    As a reader I really don't like all the description. It is one of the reasons I don't read Fantasy. I don't care about every button, bow or lace on a bodice! Tell me the color and material and let me do the rest.

  3. Hi Dakota!

    What a great post, thanks for putting it up! LOL, it's making me rethink the opening of my story. I'm going to have to think about it a bit! I love your first line, talk about an attention grabber!!!

    I like your onion metaphor as well!


    Dottie :)

  4. w3ndz,

    That line is meant to gain attention, and it is funny taken out of context. The tone of the whole passage, though, is more serious. Shortly after this passage ends, there will be an armed invasion of the clinic and some very tense moments. It's an example of grabbing the reader's interest right away so that interest pulls the reader's eyes along to what comes next. If this opening began with the second paragraph instead (Tsehaye aimed curses at the men in the room with her...), it wouldn't be nearly as grabby.

  5. Sharon,

    Putting in a lot of backstory in the opening lead stops the action as clearly as if the writer said, "And oh, by the way, the reason all this is happening is because ..." There is one short section of backstory in my lead, the part about the village expecting the birth of the Leopard Child. That was needed to make the reader aware that something interesting is going on outside the narrow confines of the clinic.

    As for description, I also believe in planing a few vivid ideas and leaving the rest to the reader's imagination. For example, in case the reader didn't know that the Ogaden area was desert, I used "Air floating in the window of the clinic had a scorched sand smell...". To set the indoor scene for a remote clinic, the lights were dim as candlelight, but the medical equipment contrasted with the effect. There is also description hidden in dialogue, such as when Tsehaye yells that the room is too crowded. There are numerous sensory related words intended to make the reader FEEL what is going on: squeezed, breathe shallow, sweat sheathed, thighs ached with tension. These are direct grabber words to involve the reader, and one of the reasons why so much is packed into this opening - no wasted words. Did all of this pour out of my mind the first time through? Of course not. This lead has been carefully edited, and I even changed a couple of words when posting it here. The rest of the book deserves careful editing, of course, but in the lead the cutting knife has to be especially sharp.

  6. Hi Dottie,

    If you want, you can send me your first 500 words by email. I'll let you know what I think. I'm not mean. :)

  7. Hi Dakota!

    Thanks for your offer! I'll get an email sent out to you.

    Dottie :)

  8. You identify pretty much how I choose books at the library or bookstore except I open the book to the middle and read a couple of pages because I know the author expends so much effort on the first chapter. I want to make sure that halfway through it still grabs me :)