In earnest, I’ve been studying story beginnings and trying to dissect what exactly makes a great beginning. Although author’s voice and tone do come into play, there seems to be something else altogether. The story needs to start in the middle of something that’s either happening or has happened, in present active time.
In the photo, do you wonder how this man found himself clinging to the rock?
Yes? Good. But next ask yourself if you care about him, really care?
If the answer is no, don’t feel bad. We know nothing about him. Your job is to make the reader care from this very first image…sentence…hook. And to get the reader to care, the writer must make the character sympathetic.
Now look at the photo again. Think of a hiking trip gone wrong, his wife has been injured, cell service is nonexistent, and he has to risk everything to save her. The pain in his eyes as he’s staring up at her while descending, leaving her even for a moment to search for an easier way down, is evident.
Do you care about him now? Yes?
That’s because you’re rooting for him to succeed and I am too. And that’s what your reader needs to pull from your opening. The reader needs to care.
According to Roy Sorrels, How to Start Smart, your novel should show your character teetering on the edge of something.
“Goddamn it, Zsadist! Don’t jump—“ –Lover Awakened by J.R. Ward
Literally, Ward hooks the reader by employing this tipping point with Zsadist, the hero, jumping from a fast-moving vehicle, as we learn from the second sentence.
But what else could the reader infer from this opening hook?
- Someone, in this case Zsadist’s twin, Phurry, the POV character, cares for Zsadist deeply.
- Zsadist is heroic or maybe even suicidal.
- Zsadist often jumps without thinking about the consequences (flaw) whereas Phurry thinks too much (the place where Zsadist needs to arc toward and vise versa for Phurry, by the way).
- Danger is imminent, and, as a result, your character will never be the same again.
Instantly, we care about Zsadist and Phurry too. We want Zsadist to survive because his brother cares about him. (Possible theme: Limits of sibling responsibility.)
What’s important to understand is that the reader needs to be able to picture this tipping point from the first sentence, first paragraphs, first page, etc.
Make sure to include in the opening (try for first paragraph) the following aspects:
- Hook should include the sympathetic character at an unusual tipping point that adds curiosity, with slight reference to setting and the POV character’s immediate intentions.
- Hint at his hidden desire and fear while giving the reader a glimpse at the motivations.
- Plot goal may or may not come into play, but introduce heightened tension that hints at your theme.
- Avoid backstory
- Set the Tone
From American Gods by Neil Gaiman:
“Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.”
How do you feel after reading that opening?
Here’s a guy, Shadow, who wants to stay out of trouble (fear: of being bad, desire: to be good). He occupies his time in prison (setting) by working out, teaching himself coin tricks, and thinking about his wife (motivation, sympathetic character). He’s put in his time, three years, and I’m curious to know why he was in prison and when he will get out (that’s about to happen later in the scene. We’re just at the tipping point). We can assume that his immediate motivation is reuniting with his wife (he states this later in the scene, too).
Possible themes are: Love, Loyalty, and Sacrifice.
Gaiman sets the tone with words like Shadow, big, don’t-fuck-with-me, killing, and tricks, but also includes in shape and love.
Shadow is a sympathetic character. I’m rooting for him because, gosh, he wants to be good, bad things happen to good people, he’s paid his dues, and he loves his wife!
And, right from the start, I want what Shadow wants. I want him to get out of prison and reunite with his wife.
Next time you have to craft the beginning of your story, try to include the bullet points above. Create a sympathetic image for your reader that hovers on the tipping point so the reader immediately wants what your main character wants.
“Live Write Thrive | Insights, Inspiration, and Practical Advice for Writers.” Live Write Thrive | Insights, Inspiration, and Practical Advice for Writers. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2012. <http://www.livewritethrive.com/>.http://www.livewritethrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/first-page-checklist.pdf
Bernays, Anne, and Pamela Painter. What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. New York, NY: HarperCollins College, 1995. Print. [Robie Macauley, Ways To Begin A Story, pg 10]
Fredette, Jean M. The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing, Volume II. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest, 1991. Print [Roy Sorrels, How To Start Smart, pg 89]