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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Effective Openings or How to Hook Your Reader From the Start

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Writers know the opening scene is critical to catching and keeping the reader’s attention. That’s why the beginning of the story is the most revised part. So how do you hook the reader and where do you start a story? Good question.
Empathy Hooks the Reader
You may start your story with action, but you hook your reader through her
emotions. You must write something out of the ordinary which drives the reader to empathize with a character.
Consider your own life. What happens in your ordinary world? Do you spend much time relating to your spouse or friends the details of brushing your teeth, shaking the last bit of cereal into a bowl for breakfast, driving to work, working through 125 emails before lunch while processing the ordinary paperwork in your job, etc.? Not usually. These events are predictable, un-noteworthy, and maybe even cliché.
What you do share is something that stands out as a challenge (conflict)—the flat tire you had on the way to work, the charges on your credit card that are not yours, the wasp that flew down the chimney and nearly stung one of the kids before you found the Raid, the call from your child’s school saying Johnny—or Johanna—punched someone on the bus during the field trip to the museum.
Things that are not ordinary. Things that could be a source of conflict. Things that may call you to dig deep and rise to the challenge when you’d prefer to wallow in a little self-pity—just for a few minutes.
Extraordinary Moments Promise Adventure
So start your story with something out of the ordinary. Something that breaks into the main character’s ordinary world with a big enough challenge she must change direction to solve the problem. 

What? You were planning to let her feel sorry for herself in the opening and hold off on the trouble? The Grammar Divas know you didn’t mean that. A flat opening turns away your reader. No empathy. Your reader wants to escape the Pitiful Pearls for a while. She deals with them at work all day, thank you. And she wants the unexpected—starting now, not the next chapter. Because the ordinary world is boring.
The Key? Mix Empathy & Conflict Effectively
·         Introduce the main character                                     
·         Show the main character under stress (empathy)
·         Introduce what’s at stake (a problem/conflict big enough to be worth the reader’s time)
·         Establish setting and tone                         
·         Foreshadow the ending
Ways to Open the Story
·         Drop the reader into the on-going action of the main character. It’s time to show rather than tell in an opening. Put long paragraphs of reminiscing and description aside. Right now, your reader wants to meet the main character and find out what’s happening to her.
No paragraphs of backstory yet. Don’t expect a reader to care about the past when the main characters are still strangers to her. People need to know you as a person before they’ll care about your broken home as a child or that you’ve given up on men because your spouse was a louse. All that stuff affects who people are, yes, but not now, please. 
Build the “character” of the main character. Tell the reader why she should continue to read. 
Here’s the opening of Ain’t She Sweet?, Susan Elizabeth Phillips:
The wild child of Parrish, Mississippi, had come back to the town she’d left behind forever. Sugar Beth Carey gazed from the rain-slicked windshield to the horrible dog who lay beside her on the passenger seat.
“I know what you’re thinking, Gordon, so go ahead and say it. How the mighty have fallen, right?” She gave a bitter laugh. “Well, screw you.  Just…” She blinked her eyes against a string of tears. “Just…screw you.”
Gordon lifted his head and sneered at her. He thought she was trash.
“Not me, pal.” She turned up the heater on her ancient Volvo against the chill of the late February day. “Griffin and Diddie Carey ruled this town, and I was their princess. The girl most likely to set the world on fire.”
She heard an imaginary howl of basset hound laughter. 

Sooo… Sugar Beth’s ordinary world has already left her. We’ve dropped in when her decision to change direction has already been made—though, of course, she doesn’t realize the action hasn’t even begun. She’s crawled “home” to lick her wounds because she’s got no other place to go. She’s not happy about it, doesn’t like her dead husband’s dog (but we like that she didn’t get rid of it), and is clearly broke. She has dignity, having learned something about survival over the years. She’s vulnerable—thus the tears.
From the first line, the reader knows a lot about Sugar Beth. Then there’s the edge of conflict rising, and a promise of richly layered story and a satisfying ending. Setting and tone are established. Phillips hints at her past—spoiled little rich girl down on her luck. Some readers enjoy seeing her in a bad way. Some might sympathize. But either way, Susan Elizabeth Phillips has snagged the reader’s interest.
We’re engaged emotionally—ready to go on an adventure with Sugar Beth.
·         Open the story with a powerful first sentence. A first sentence should hint at something more to come—conflict or the qualities of the main character under fire. Use powerful nouns and action verbs to get started—to show a concrete picture of what the story promises.
Use a powerful sentence from the main character’s deep POV.  Try having the character doing something that is ordinary for her and add a touch of introspection. 
Here are a few opening lines that really work!
Of all the smoky bars in Seattle, he had to walk into the Loose Screw, the dive where I worked five days a week pulling beer and choking on secondhand smoke. [See Jane Score, Rachel Gibson]
Between the hot flashes, the hangover and all the spam on my computer, there’s no way I’ll get anything done before eight o’clock this morning. [Prime Time, Hank Phillipi Ryan]
The day Kevin Tucker nearly killed her, Molly Somerville swore off unrequited love forever. [This Heart of Mine, Susan Elizabeth Phillips]
Scott Duncan sat across from the killer. [Just One Look, Harlan Coben]
The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old. [Black and Blue, Anne Quinlan]
·         Open the story with tension. This scene should reflect the overall conflict of the novel. The main character should have needs and desires at odds with initial hopes or goals. She has to have something meaningful at stake or the reader won’t care about her problem and how she deals with it. 
Here’s the opening of Murder in Metropolis, Lonnie Cruse:
Sheriff Joe Dalton plunked his boots on top of his desk, leaned back in the protesting chair, snapped the newspaper, and reached for his coffee.
Before he could down a swig, the intercom buzzed, forcing him to wade under a stack of files and push a button.
“Yes, George?”
“We’ve got a situation outside on Market Street, Sheriff. Guess you’ll have to handle it,” the elderly dispatcher informed him. “Morning shift hasn’t arrived yet, and the night deputies are still at that big accident scene over on Highway 145.”
“Would the situation outside be Big Ed Simmons?”
“Yes, sir, drunk as they come and singing fair to wake the dead.”
“Where is he? On the courthouse steps again?”
“Nope, this time he’s on the steps of Lipinski’s Appliances. Miz Lipinski says if we don’t shut him up, she will, with that old pistol her husband kept in the store. Though what an eighty-year-old woman with crippling arthritis is doing with…”
“I’ll get right on it, George. We don’t need Mrs. Lipinski shooting up Market Street at daybreak.”
The sheriff’s desire is to take it easy for a bit, including not sorting through the stack of paperwork on his desk. But when the situation is real trouble, he must shift his desires to his long-range goal of serving the public (he is the sheriff). We like him, and we anticipate learning how he’ll handle an out-of-patience shopkeeper and the town drunk. The scene brims with possibilities and the reader is ready to follow the sheriff out the door.
How To Fix a Flat Opening
·         Revise if you’ve got the first page full of introspection, which is telling at a time you need to show the story. James Scott Bell says the character needs to be in motion in that opener (Revision and Self-Editing) Not necessarily high suspense. But in an active setting, where something is challenging your main character.  
·         Revise if you have more than a sentence or two of backstory in the opening scene. Note Sugar Beth gives the reader only a small detail that intrigues. Remember we said the reader has to know the main character before she’ll care about the character’s past.
·         Revise a cliché opener. Clichés are non-starters. They cause the reader’s eyes to roll back in her head, and she will lay aside your novel. Susan Elizabeth Phillips has Sugar Beth driving down the street—true. But talking to the dog that hates her (and which she can’t afford to feed), and admitting how down on her luck she is—well, this surprises the reader and shreds the notion of a cliché opening for this author and this story.
·         Revise if you used humor (sets tone of the story) to get the attention of the reader, but then… your “real” story is more serious in tone.
·         Revise if you have several characters in the opener. The reader wants to empathize with the main character, which she can’t do if you confuse the scene with too many new characters to get acquainted with. Think of how a camera lens can zoom in close on one person in a crowd. That’s what you want to do. Introduce the reader to the main character and solidify the empathy before you bring in other characters.
When an opening scene fails, Les Edgerton in Hooked, says the writer hasn’t learned to trust the reader. He states reading is a participatory exercise, where the reader draws inferences from what the writer details in the story. But if the writer lays out everything for the reader, the reader isn’t required to think (participate).

Les Edgerton Hooked

 Edgerton says the opening scene (but no others) is written in a vacuum—where no knowledge from previous scenes exists. So the writer wants to bring the reader-up-to-date with backstory.  Well, that means when stuff hits the fan (inciting incident), the reader has nothing to work for! The story is already laid out.
Oh, wow! Nice way to explain that the reader doesn’t need the life story of the main character to understand what’s going on or what the challenge will be.
Go back to Sugar Beth. We don’t know what she hopes to achieve by going home or what difficulty she will face. But we “get” what’s about to happen.
Your readers are smart and want to participate in the story. Write with that in mind.
How about you? What works for story openers? Or what doesn’t? Tell us.

                                                                                                        -- By the Grammar Divas for WriterMason.blogspot.com

Thank You Divas!
Don't forget to comment to win a Style and Grammar Critique of your first 15 pages!  Winner drawn by random.org Tuesday 9p.m.EST. Leave an email address in your comment to win!


  1. Thanks, Grammar Divas! I am going to look at my opening scene right now and use your tips to help pump it up. Thanks for all the good advice!


  2. You're welcome, Pam. Let us know how your opening improved after this second look!

    Yours in grammar...


  3. Sigh, my new BFF, the delete key! :) Begone backstory.
    rszostak@ mindspring.com

  4. Wow, great information! I am fixing to start revising my novel with your insight in mind...Thank you!


  5. I love a great first line. It can set the tone of the book and sometimes will make or break a book for me--as a reader.

    What doesn't work for me is starting a book with a quote (dialogue). I don't know why but that doesn't work for me.

    What does work for me is a clever or shocking first liner.

    Here's one of my faves from Evan McNamara's Fair Game:
    "Ever since we shot half of the Mineral County sheriff's department, my deputy and I have been a little shorthanded."

    Thanks for a great post!


  6. Hurray, Rosemarie! You're willing to get rid of something you worked hard to write. Trust us, if you need some of that backstory, you'll find a better place...later. And reveal a tiny bit, only as needed.

  7. Thanks for the great tips. It will be helpful as I re-write my opening scene to make the reader more sympathetic towards the heroine.


  8. I always love reading your advice, Grammar Divas! This blog post comes at the perfect time since I just started rewriting my opening today. Thank you so much!

  9. Well, I got my opening nailed, finally, but guess what? Now I have to do a total novel rewrite in order to make the rest of the story as good. It just never ends, does it? ;)


  10. I admit that I am one of those readers that needs to be swept off my feet by the end of the first three or so pages or I move on. This underscores the importance of a powerful opening. I love being dropped, as if by by magic, right into the thick of action. A good battle scene, for example, or the aftermath of one, is just one way my attention is grabbed. Kresley Cole does an amazing job with openings, I bow to her. ---Christina Teacherchristina@sbcglobal.net

  11. Thanks, Deb. Congrats on being willing to revisit your opening. You've got the makings of a great writer!

    Yours in grammar...


  12. Hey, The Waldos! Ditto on how much I love a dramatic opening. I love ones that grab my sense of curiosity and compel me to keep reading.

    Here's on of my favorites from Joanne Rock's "The Wedding Knight:" If Lucian Barret had been a righteous, God-fearing man, he might have trembled at the thought of kidnapping a nun.

    Yours in grammar...


  13. Hey Maria & Jan!

    Good Grammar Divas luck on writing those openings. Remember, first time around, just get it down on paper. Then, go back and edit... and edit... and maybe edit again.

    Yours in grammar...


  14. Hey, Suzanne!

    No, it doesn't! That's what makes writing fun, right?


    Yours in grammar...


  15. Hi Christina,

    Writers must pay attention to the needs of the reader--we don't write just for ourselves--or Mom. And I think your comment that you like to be dropped as if by magic into the thick of things says exactly what the first scene must be!

    Yours in grammar,

  16. I love these pointers-- thanks for the comments so far writers! Hope you're using this to polish up those ms' for the conferences you're attending this fall. You want that first page to really 'zing' your editor/agent, and this is exactly what I need for my own work.
    Comments still open through Tuesday before the giveaway.

  17. Great post, Divas! :) Always love to read your advice.

    Julia Quinn is one of my favorite authors for great openings. I can think of two of her books in particular that made me fall in love with her hero within moments of the book starting. Apparently if you pull my heartstrings with a fantastic hero in the opening, I'm hooked. :)


  18. Those are really great examples. Thanks for sharing and taking the time to keep writers on track. :)

  19. Thanks everybody for visiting and commenting. And Thank You Darlene Buchholz and Annie Oortman for your post and lessons. I know I'm ready to start over with these tips!

  20. Man! I'm sorry I missed this discussion. BUT I have printed out the post to put in my writing folder. Great, great stuff here.

    Thanks for sharing this with us and thanks so much to the Grammar Divas for doing what they do.



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