Equipped with this information, I observed shoppers browsing in a Tallahassee book store and watched how they pick a book. In every case they first read the story blurb on the book flap or back cover and then read the first couple pages before either returning the book to the shelf or heading off to the cashier with their prize.
For you as a writer this means you’ve got to deliver a dynamite opening sentence and first chapter. No long wind-ups, but bang!—straight into the heart of your story. So if you reread your first draft and realize that the story doesn’t kick in until page twelve, that’s twelve pages too late! Ditch those warm-up pages. If they contain important information or character development, salvage it for insertion elsewhere in your novel, perhaps as back-story.
Even as long ago as the First Century BCE, the Roman poet Horace (best known for his poem Carpe Diem—“Seize the Day”) recommended that literature begin in media res—“in the midst of things.” In other words, with characters already engaged in dramatic action.
Study how the masterful Nora Roberts opens the door to her novel Witness with a sentence that immediately conveys both character and the threat of violence:
Elizabeth Fitch’s short-lived teenage rebellion began with L’Oreal Pure Black, a pair of scissors and a fake ID. It ended in blood.
Maxine Hong Kingston begins The Woman Warrior with this hook:
“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”
The first paragraph of Diana Gabaldon’s blockbuster, Outlander, economically conveys intrigue and setting and characterization:
It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, not at first glance. Mrs. Baird’s was like a thousand other Highland bed-and-breakfast establishments in 1945; clean and quiet, with fading floral wallpaper, gleaming floors, and a coin-operated hot-water geyser in the lavatory. Mrs. Baird herself was squat and easygoing, and made no objection to Frank lining her tiny rose-sprigged parlor with the dozens of books and papers with which he always traveled.
Patricia Briggs begins Moon Called, the first book in her paranormal romance series starring the shape-shifter, Mercy Thompson, with a scene that introduces the heroine as an auto mechanic—with an extraordinary sense of smell.
I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn’t at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oil—and it’s not like there are a lot of stray werewolves running around. So when someone made a polite noise near my feet to get my attention I thought he was a customer.
Here are opening sentences from a few of my own short stories and novels.
Mason Drake awoke and saw the pilot burning. Flames climbed up the dead man’s flight jacket and the red nylon melted.
If Tom Harding had been paying attention to his fingertips when they began to tingle, the strangest encounter of his life would not have happened.
When my transition drew near, an Unsurpassable Lover came to my door, her puffy-eyed silence foretelling terrible news.
“Where were you last night?”
I rolled onto my side and a headache thunder-clapped through my skull. A nude woman occupied with me a bed so broad it seemed a landscape of satin sheets.
“Where did you go last night?” she said again. Whoever she was, she was royalty. A holo-tattoo of the Imperial Dragon coiled around the pupil of her left eye, shimmering iridescently.
Once you’ve crafted enticing opening sentences, your readers need to be told within the next two or three pages:
· WHO is the story’s hero?
· WHERE does the story take place?
· WHAT conflict does the hero face?
· WHY should we care? (Hint: because the hero is likable.)
All of the above does not imply slaving over your first paragraphs, insisting that they be perfect before you can move on with writing your story. If you feel stuck on the opening scene, plunging deeper into the tale might be your best strategy. After fifty or a hundred pages, when your characters and their struggles to find love have become real and alive for you, you’ll probably have a strong idea how to go back and rewrite the beginning.