It was a dark and stormy blog post. *snicker*
While the purpose of a pitch is to get a request, the purpose of a story’s first page is to make people want to keep reading. Whether the reader is an agent/editor looking at sample pages or a bookstore customer flipping open the cover, if they want to turn the page, we’ve succeeded.
Our number one goal with our first line, paragraph, and page is to pull readers along for the ride. So for everything we write on that all-important first page, we have to ask ourselves, “Will this draw a reader in or push them away?”
What Pulls In a Reader?
Instead of looking at story openings as writers, we need to look at them from a reader’s perspective. As a reader, the main question we have when we start a story is, will our time be well spent? Will we be entertained or informed?
Let’s go through the standard advice for story openings and look at why those tips help pull in readers.
- “Start the story at the right point, just before something happens in the main character’s life that forces a change or decision.”
At their essence, stories are about change. Weather and settings don’t change much, which is why they’re too static for openings. We need to see characters encountering a problem.
These changes or problems don’t have to be big or be the main issue that will carry the story forward. Hints of impending issues or a gap between the expected and the reality tell us there’s something to look forward to, that there’s a story there.
- “Start with action or conflict.”
This advice doesn’t refer to the Michael Bay approach to action with car chases and explosions. In fact, the conflict doesn’t even have to involve a character. The conflict can be within us, between what we expect and the words on the page.
Think of the opening line to George Orwell’s 1984, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Our “Wait…What?” reaction to that sentence grabs us even though no punch was thrown. Again, there’s a promise of more to come.
- “Be surprising or mysterious.”
We keep reading to find out what will happen next and to learn the answers to our questions. Every time a story answers a question, a new one should be posed.
Opening with backstory answers our questions too quickly. We need to have just enough information to avoid confusion and understand we have a gap in our knowledge. Human nature wants to fill that gap—and keep reading.
- “Make readers care about characters and events.”
We care more about our friends’ problems than those of strangers. Characters who are relatable make us more curious to find out how they deal with their problems and adapt to changes.
This doesn’t mean we want a physical description of characters or a dry backstory of their tale of woe. We want to see characters in action, showing us who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, and what matters to them.
- “Have a strong voice.”
Sometimes an opening that breaks every rule can succeed if the voice is strong enough to pull us along. We all know those types in real life: a person with amazing charisma or a great personality.
Those people don’t lack for friends because they automatically seem interesting. The same thing applies to characters. We want to get to know them.
Curiosity drives a reader to turn the page. Readers don’t want to see ordinary, and any exposition or explanation that can wait until later, should wait until later.
(Other common problems, like clichés, overwriting, and sloppy craft, make readers suspect the author lacks the skill to fulfill the story’s promises. The edittorrent blog has a list of “marks of the amateur,” craft mistakes that make a manuscript look unprofessional.)
How to Prepare for the Pitch Your Shorts Pitch Session
My post here on January 10th will open the week-long pitch session with the Entangled Publishing editors. We’ll be leaving a two-sentence pitch and the first 100 words of our stories in the comments of that post.
(To be clear, that means the first 100-ish words. You’re allowed to finish slightly before or after 100 words to end on a complete sentence. *smile*)
100 words isn’t much. It’s a given the editors will be looking for proof that we have strong writing skills. But beyond that, we have to make them curious about our characters, their situation, their problems, and their world within those few words. It can be done.
Here are the first 52 words of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
The first line breaks a “rule” (Don’t have a character just waking up!), but it contrasts what the point-of-view character expected (someone in bed next to her) and what she discovered (an empty bed). That hint of a problem pulls us to the next line, where the bedding description gives us clues about this family’s situation (someone to care about). By the end of the first paragraph, we know something bad is about to happen.
A fantastic guest post by Natalie C. Parker at the Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing blog examines the anatomy of a good hook. Like a hook, a story’s first line has to be sharp (“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.“), within a few lines, a barb should tug us forward (“She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.“), and then we need a sentence connecting that opening to a story question (“This is the day of the reaping.“)
Stina Lindenblatt analyzed almost 70 story openings (a project that appeals to my perfectionist nature) to see which ones made her want to read more. Her results?
“The first two paragraphs that made me want to read more involved a combination of introspection and action.”
Introspection and action, like the opening to The Hunger Games. (Yes, Katniss searching for her sister is “action.” It indicates change, want, and a problem.)
Introspection makes us curious about the character, and action makes us curious about the situation, conflict, or problem. That will keep readers reading.
Other Resources for Learning about Story Openings
Elizabeth S. Craig’s Writer’s Knowledge Base comes to the rescue again with the ability to search for posts about first pages.
James Scott Bell has a good list of “don’t”s.
Janice Hardy tells us how to fix various “don’t”s here and here (in this second one, she also analyzes the opening of her debut book to explain how and why she made her decisions for her first 250 words).
In a guest post, Janice Hardy explains the how and why of her first line.
What part of story openings do you struggle with? First lines? Starting in the right place? Resisting the information dump? Creating curiosity? Finding the line between curiosity and confusion? (*raises hand to that last one*)
(Feel free to list your first 100 words below to get feedback, and feel free to comment on others’ openings. Comments on this post are not part of the pitch session.)Pin It