Monday, July 16, 2012

Openings: How to Grab Readers from the Moment They Start Reading

The job of the first sentence in a novel is to draw a reader in, and the job of the opening paragraphs is to convince him or her that this book is worth reading all the way through.
Whatever genre you write, the opening paragraphs need to create suspense and make the reader care about the characters and want to know what's going to happen to them.
James Scott Bell, in The Art of War for Writers, says this about openings:
“. . . you are in a battle for attention. You must use all haste to surprise and capture the reader.
And I mean take him by the lapels and drag him into the story world with no time wasted.
. . .
So how do you do it?
By understanding why people read.
They read to worry.
They read because they want to have their emotions wrenched by the plight of a character to whom they feel emotionally connected.
You do the connecting. You start connecting from paragraph one.
If you want to sell your fiction, you must grab the emotions of the reader by putting a character in some kind of discomfort or danger or the possibility thereof . . . Anything that is a disturbance, or potential disturbance, to their ordinary world.”
Bell’s making a strong point, but he is not saying to open with murder and mayhem, unless that’s what your novel is about. He is saying that you should open with a disturbance to your character’s ordinary world that will make the reader pull for them.  
That’s the litmus test.  To do that, it helps to make the opening pithy and immediate.
Here’s an opening Bell offers as an example, where the disturbance is placed at the end of the first paragraph: from Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow:
Paul Osborn sat alone among the smoky bustle of the after-work crowd, staring into a glass of red wine.  He  was tired and hurt and confused.  For no particular reason he looked up.  When he did, his breath left him with a jolt.  Across the room sat the man who murdered his father.
No question that gets my attention and makes me not only curious about Paul Osborne, but worried about him.

Bell is a master of fiction writing, and if you haven't had a chance to read his books on writing yet, you'll no doubt love them. The Art of War for Writers is chock full of pithy, usable examples to help you hit the beats just right throughout your novel.

Do you have a favorite opening in a book you enjoyed reading (or writing)? Maybe a different kind of book than the one Bell shared? How did it pull you in? Did it create suspense and curiosity and above all, worry? Care to share?


  1. Awesome points on the first line and first paragraph. The example is great. I haven't read this craft book by James Scott Bell. I'll have to check it out.

  2. This is a great first paragraph! I love the book, The Art of War for Writers, too. I'm going to read it again. I think that we get caught up and forget how important this stuff is. I'm going to go back to the beginning... or each chapter... and make sure I have this grab and hook.

    Thanks for the great post!

    1. So true, Karlene. We get caught up and forget that just because we've written a book it doesn't mean we don't need to keep reminding ourselves of these very important factors. Bell is terrific at it.

  3. I've never read The Art of War for Writers, but I'd really like to...I'm gonna look for it at The of my favourite opening lines (paraphrasing) is, "Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in it's own way." from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy..
    ..and "Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday. I can't be sure." from The Outsider by Albert Camus..
    ..oh! I thought of another great one! "The director said to me:'I only keep you out of respect for your esteemed father; otherwise you would have been sent flying long ago.' I replied,'You flatter me, Your Excellency, in assuming that I am capable of flying.' " opening lines of the short story 'My Life' by Anton Chekov
    I love great opening lines! Thanks for this post Linda!

    1. Those are excellent examples, Eve, from great books. I've always loved the Camus one, myself. Ha! Chekov knew how to be ironic, for sure, and such a master of layers. I never read My LIfe, but maybe I will. Tolstoy--oh, my. Do you think he meant happy families are superficial? It;s a line that certainly gets the reader thinking.

  4. "Janice Capshaw liked to run at night." -Midnight by Dean Koontz somehow you get the feeling she's either going to become a victim of some violent crime, or will see something she wish she never did. Koontz is a master at his game.

    I love to stop by on Bell's Sunday posts. Somehow I must have missed this one. Thanks for bringing it out again in the mainstream!

    1. Bell has Sunday posts??? I did not know that, and will definitely look for them.
      Yeah, the Koontz opening is loaded with suspense in seven words, somehow, even though it isn't phrased to be. It's word choice combined with contemporary knowledge about the dangers of running alone at night, especially for women. Great choice!