I approach reading a new novel—or piece of short fiction—the way a five year old adds a new food to his dietary repertoire.
“Just a paragraph or two. You never know whether you’ll like it unless you try.” Well that may be true, but the five year old and I have tried to expand our frontiers before and have been sorely disappointed. The truth is, we probably won’t like green eggs and ham and will wind up with indigestion and a bad case of “incompletion guilt”. We started something we didn’t finish and, “there are millions of fiction-starved Chinese who’d love to read those paragraphs.”
So I start reading. I ease into new stories the way agents and editors do. Slowly carefully, looking for a reason to quit before I’ve invested too much time and energy. The over-read professionals typically ask for fifty pages and a synopsis, but they probably decide whether they are going to like a piece of work by the time they’ve read the first 200 words.
One thing I know for sure. You can’t hook a reader with a synopsis. When seventy thousand words are boiled down to a single page they really don’t make a lot of sense. If you can pull a semblance of a plot out of a massive reduction like that, you certainly can’t maintain things like character arcs, and themes, and subplots, and minor characters. And figurative language be damned.
So what you have left to hook the reader is that first 200 words, the beginning of your story. It doesn’t matter how fantastic the narrative gets on the third page or at the midpoint. Readers will be disgusted by the time they get there—and they probably won’t get there at all.
Do’s, Don’ts & Cautions
In the first few paragraphs of a story the writer has to convince readers to keep on turning pages so they can find out what happens next. The easiest way to do this is to introduce a likable character or two, someone any sensible person would like to spend some time with. Even in stories that are mostly plot driven need characters the readers care about, which brings me to a piece of advice I think is given too infrequently. Don’t start writing too soon.
The most spontaneous, outline free writer has to have at least a general idea of how the story is going to go. That may change so much as to be unrecognizable by the time it is finished but a narrative idea is critical. Characters are going to have to carry the action of that narrative so the writer should get to know his character’s well before the writing actually starts. Here are five basic things the writer should know about every character: 1. What do they want, 2. What do they need, 3. What do they love, 4. What do they hate, 5. What are they afraid of. It wouldn’t hurt to know what they eat for breakfast either, or how they take their coffee, and a few embarrassing moments that made them what they are today.
In addition to making the reader love (or at least like) your protagonist in the first 200 words, you need to stimulate curiosity, create a compelling problem, and hide a few Easter eggs if possible (hints at things that are likely to turn up later in the story so the reader will be searching for them).
The good news is you don’t have to have your hook when you finally do get around to writing. You can start writing a story at any point in the narrative and figure out the best place to start later on. Writers who use outlines will have a much easier time isolating the best start point. I don’t personally work from an outline, but I construct one after the first draft is “finished” so I can look at the structure and see how it needs to be changed.
There are two general ideas about the best starting place for a story. Ab ovo (from the egg) and In res media (in the middle of things). Many writers start off ab ovo and switch to in res media by the time they are finished. Don’t fixate on a start point early on.
Here are a couple more don’ts: 1. don’t dump information, 2. don’t mislead the reader. Data dumping is probably the most common problem among writers. You’ve got all this information about your plot, and your characters and it’s literally burning a hole in your keyboard. Try to satisfy that urge by hiding a few Easter eggs. Notice I said a few.
Misleading the reader is a less common problem, but some writers try to make a story seem more interesting by disguising romances and cozy mysteries thrillers. Don’t starting off with a major disaster (earthquake, airplane crash, terrorist attack) that has no real connection to the theme or plot. Especially don’t start of with a dream. Nothing makes readers angrier than being lured into a plot that didn’t actually happen.
There are plenty of opening techniques are perfectly acceptable but must be used with caution. Writers are fond of similes. This figurative language technique can be used effectively when it relates to the event it’s being being used to illustrate, but similes use a lot of space and are ineffective unless the reader knows something about the circumstances and emotions—which they usually don’t in the first 200 words.
Bad simile: He had kind eyes and a little tremor that shook his head back and forth like an aspen leaf in the wind.
Better simile: He had kind eyes and a little tremor that shook his head back and forth as if he were trying to refuse.
For God’s sake avoid the temptation to make your writing beautiful. Good narrative writing is clear. It is not poetry. Shakespeare pulled it off. You aren’t him.
Here is an actual line from a story submitted to a contest (courtesy of K.D. Wentworth) that describes an object we have all seen every day. I took me a good 60 seconds to figure out what the writer was talking about: “ . . . the orb that makes the day the day.”
I like to use quotes in the first 200 words because they can take you right into a character’s mind and right into the action of the scene and with no description. Quotations can establish a moodand provide a lot of information. However—there is always one of those isn’t there—the reader is barely into the story and doesn’t know anything about the speaker yet. The quotes have to be short and convey some insight into the character of the speaker.
Prologues are often discouraged by agents and editors. I love them, but they have to be used with extreme caution. A prologue automatically sticks the writer with two openings. That’s not so bad, because every chapter has an opening of sorts. But prologues usually happen at an earlier time than the main narrative, and the protagonist of the prologue is usually not the protagonist of the main story. Writers frequently start off with a prologue and by the end of the story, they decide to put all that information in through back story techniques, like flashbacks, conversations, and hints.
I Can Hook That Reader in ________ Words
In recent years it has become popular to hook the reader with a blockbuster sentence. Stun them quickly and then go in for the kill.
“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” ~Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner. 21 words
“They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.” ~Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked. 12 words
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”~Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. 26 words
Compelling sentences like these work well in the hands of a skilled writer, but if there is even a hint of confusion or a minor misuse of words the effect is lost. If an author uses this type of opening, the readers will expect to be “thrilled” again every page or so.
An alternative is to ease the reader into the story, usually after the main conflict is well underway. Information is dribbled in at an easy pace and there is plenty of time to hide Easter eggs and build curiosity.
While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out: and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. By day I sat on the foot of the bed straining to puzzle out the Dutch –language news on television (which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch) and when I gave up, I sat by the window staring out at the canal with my camel’s-hair coat thrown over my clothes—for I’d left New York in a hurry and the things I’d brought weren’t warm enough, even indoors.”~Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. 148 words
And there is my own personal favorite, which I refer to as the quicksand approach. This method usually brings the reader into the story closer to the initiating incident, although it can work just as well with the in media res approach. The reader steps right into the scene with no especially compelling sentence, and no gradual introduction into the action. A quotation works particularly well in this technique.
“Double stick orange today.” The H-Unit guard puts down his red and white insulated cooler and shakes hands with the Reverend Richard Harjo. “Strawberry tomorrow. Grape the day after.”
Richard knows the routine. Death row inmates get popsicles when the air conditioning can’t keep pace with summer. June, July, and August. Sometimes the first week in September.
“Name’s Anton Leemaster.” The guard points to his nametag. “Just transferred in from visitation.”~John T. Biggs, Popsicle Styx. 71 words
What Information are you trying to provide?
No matter what kind of opening you choose you need to show the readers what kind of story you are inviting to join. If possible, you want to let them know the time, the place, the mood, the theme, the protagonist and one other character—no more than two. Information overload is a sure way to convince the readers they don’t like green eggs and ham, and they probably won’t be interested in trying anything else you might have cooked up. Here’s a good example of a bad opening. How many errors can you find?
Bill Baker lifted the pistol and pointed it at Cathy. He pulled the hammer back and watched the reaction of Cathy’s brother John and her best friend Julie.
“Think about what you’re doing,” John said. His hands trembled like an aspen leaf in the wind.
A high pitched noise filled the room, like the sound of a mosquito magnified a thousand times. Bill recognized the sound. He opened his eyes and reached for his alarm clock. It was all a dream.
Exceptions to Standard Rules of Writing
Some very creative and successful authors do things with openings they wouldn’t do in any other part of their narratives. They will sometimes start off with a paragraph which has the omniscient point of view typical of old time storytelling. This pov often involves extensive telling—but never data dumping. They spend as few words as possible pulling the reader into the story the way a mother pulls a child into a fairy tale and then they slide seamlessly into a different pov (usually third person limited) and the storyteller fades away.
“Folks say he was born the same year the state was, 1907, but you won’t find a public record to prove that or deny it. Some say he was first cousin to Tom Joad and second-cousin-once removed to Pretty Boy Floyd’s family in Salisaw—except the Joads weren’t real Okies, they were a made up clan, and it’s certain the Floyds never claimed him. You’ll even hear it claimed from time to time that he was kin to our most famous favorite son, Will Rogers, but that’s just a tall tale. To be honest, the Oklahoma son Harlan Singer favored most was the one from Okemah, but we disowned that Okemah boy on account of he was a communist they say, and anyhow, Singer had vanished in the hills by the time Woody Guthrie began to make a reputation.”~Rilla Askew, Harpsong. 139 words
There is a lot more to writing a story than hooking the reader, which is why I delay the actually writing the narrative until I have a good understanding of the characters and at least a preliminary idea of where the plot is going to go. The final product seldom resembles bears more than a faint resemblance to the original idea. Often I’ve changed my mind about the protagonist. Usually the plot has taken some twists and turns I didn’t expect. The characters always surprise me.
Eventually every story comes to an end whether we want it to or not. All those characters who occupied so much of our time go back home to live their lives while we aren’t watching.
Endings are difficult, but they can be made substantially easier if we remember they should be at least obliquely related to the beginning. The classic play, The Odd Couple is a perfect example. The first scene and the last are men gathered around a poker table. Even though their major conflict has been worked out, we know the characters are going on with their lives after the curtain closes.
Some authors hide an Easter egg in the opening paragraphs that is found in the closing scene. They give the reader a clue so it will be clear when the story is over. It gives reader a feeling of completion. The beginning and end don’t have to be identical. A similar environment, or a similar object or a similar mood can give the desired closure effect. A solid plot supported by two bookends.