The all-important opening sentence…. That beautiful display in the window as you’re passing a shop that says, “Come on in! We have everything you’re looking for, and more!” That’s what every book needs– the line that you throw out to potential readers… Hook, line and sinker.
But, how do you hook your audience? What is the secret bait…. the thing that truly snags a person’s attention as you reel them in, holding them tight on the line.
The answer is simple… Being human.
When you pick up a novel, whether you realize it or not, you are seeking an escape… an emergency exit from life. The easy part is opening up the book, like the door of a getaway car as you turn to the first page. The hard part is slipping into the drivers seat– the mind and body of the character that will be driving that car as fast and faraway as they can from the present reality. This is where you, as the writer, have a very special task.
You’re mission, should you choose to accept it, is to create a realistic human costume with an invisible and very quite zipper that locks us in once we slip it on. In other words, we have to make it easy for the reader to slip inside the mindset of our character, not interrupting that process with pauses (long unnecessary descriptions) and loud zippers (overwhelming narration). Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for these things, but we don’t want to overwhelm our readers with a deluge of information in the first page. Trust me.
Very often, this over-narrative approach will send your readers skimming ahead in search of the anchor they need to get into the story… or worse, they may just put the book down entirely and walk away. So, let’s save all the details of our hero’s childhood flashbacks to be sprinkled into the mix later.
Our first goal in storytelling is to be subtle and yet very precise. We start by setting the stage. Bring out only the key props… no need to clutter the stage with every little detail, just the basics. Trust your readers to connect the dots in their own imagination– they like that. And then– cue the lead!
The initial character steps out into the center stage (the first scene) and we introduce them (whether by mentioning their name or through a very brief description, only highlighting a couple of key features… not a head to toe description!). Now we have a visual- you have the audience’s attention! The next step is to animate the character and keep the attention of your readers by making your hero very human and easily relatable (give us at least a hint of what is driving them in that moment… an emotion, a need, a goal, an imperfection… something that makes us really feel them on a simple, human level).
Within the first page or two, we have seen the costume, slipped it on and quietly pulled up the zipper… We’re in! Now you just have to start moving forward and don’t stop! This doesn’t mean that we need constant wild action to hold our interest (that too can be overwhelming), just a good momentum without a bunch of long pauses that throw us off track.
Remember to keep descriptions brief; the reader is fully capable of filling in what you leave out, and they’re okay with that. Readers do not enjoy a long winded lecture on every detail of your characters appearance, wardrobe etc.
The same goes for scenery. I know, as a creator of worlds, you feel like you need to describe every single detail of the beautiful landscape that you’ve dreamed up, thinking that you’re readers will need this information, but they really don’t. You can give a brief description of a place, maybe 30 to 40% of the actual details, and the reader will automatically fill in the other 60% on their own. Readers enjoy books more when the visuals are lightly guided, filling in the rest with their own preferred visuals… personally tailored to they’re desires.
Pay attention to these techniques the next time you pick up a book, take note. Notice how lite the narrative is in a really good book, and how easily your mind fills in the blanks. And on the other end of the spectrum, notice how grueling a long narrative can be in the other books that you find yourself skimming through or never finish reading.
The best way to study the art of writing, is by reading. Pay attention to your favorite author’s style…. what works for you and what doesn’t.