First of all, I want to wish everyone healthy, happy holidays!
I’m reminded of when I taught English at the middle school many years ago. I announced to one of my classes that our spring holiday break would commence that Friday. A twelve-year-old girl commented with a deep sigh, “That will truly be a good Friday!” The entire class burst out laughing and applauded.
Good beginnings are crucial in capturing a reader’s attention. Every writer knows that a narrative hook is needed in any successful type of writing. Many readers pick up a book, glance at the first page, and if it doesn’t grab them immediately, they’ll simply toss it aside. It’s recently been said that the average reader has an eight second attention span—shorter than a goldfish. Of course, creating a good narrative hook for a novel or short story is easier said than done. However, here are a few suggestions that I believe will help to hold reader interest in your novel or story.
Element of Mystery
Readers are intrigued by an element of mystery. This is true whether a story or novel is an actual genre mystery or not. Every good story should have a plot that keeps the reader turning the pages, wanting to discover what is going to happen next. It's important to set up some sort of a question that can't be easily or immediately answered, a secret of the human heart that must be delved into. Prick your reader’s curiosity. This needs to be done in the first few pages and if possible from the first paragraph.
Here’s the beginning of my novel THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER, a YA appropriate for both teens and adults. It starts with an element of mystery:
“When my mother talked about Lori, she always got a funny look in her eye — not ha-ha funny but strange funny. When I was little, I never understood. As I got older, I wondered more about Lori, but I hardly ever asked because it just seemed to make my mother sad.
Lori was locked away in my mother's past life like the things in the old attic trunk. I wondered about them too. But Mom would always say when I asked her to open the trunk that the past was best forgotten. Yet, every now and then, I would say something or do something that made her sigh and exclaim: "You remind me so much of Lori!"
Not long ago, I was sitting on the living room couch reading a novel I found on the bookshelf. My mother walked into the room and gasped.
"Something wrong?" I asked.
She stared at me for a moment and shook her head. "No, but for a moment, it seemed like I was looking at Lori. I remember when she read Rebecca. She loved to read old-fashioned romances."
"Mom, what happened to Lori?"
"Danna, I'd rather not talk about her. It only brings back sad memories."
"Sure, except I didn't bring it up."
Start in medias res
Begin with a bit of intriguing, provocative dialogue or some piece of action. Get your reader involved in the plot from the beginning. Don’t begin with detailed description of people and place. You will lose your reader.
Don’t start with your main character getting up in the morning or doing anything mundane like tooth brushing. Long boring descriptions were fine for Victorian novelists, but remember that Dickens was paid by the word. Plunge the reader into the heart of the story from the beginning words.
When you do need to use description, keep it pertinent. Don’t overdo adverbs and adjectives. Use active verbs. Replace your “is”, “was” and “are” with action words whenever possible. Vary your sentence lengths and structures. You want your writing to be dynamic and exciting. Your reader must be quickly involved, must be made to care about what is happening.
Get your reader focused, placing your heroine and/or hero as close to the main action and problem as possible. Build suspense from the beginning by getting your reader into the thick of things. Weave details and necessary background information into the story as you keep the action of the plot moving along.
Make It Dramatic
Dramatize your story. Don't show, tell. I'm certain you've heard that advice many times before! How to do this? Create meaningful, realistic dialogue for your characters. Each character should be an individual, talking a certain way to reflect a personal point of view, a unique way of thinking. Good dialogue leads to action and conflict between people with different viewpoints and goals.
Avoid stilted dialogue. One way to accomplish this is by reading your writing out loud. Remember readers have to accept the characters in your novel as real people. Try to differentiate speakers by mannerisms or actions as well.
Here’s the beginning of THE BAD WIFE, a romantic mystery, 4th in the Kim Reynolds series:
“Must be fate,” a deep, masculine voice said.
Kim Reynolds dropped the head of lettuce she’d been examining and it rolled across the floor.
“Didn’t mean to startle you.” Mike Gardner’s voice was like a caress.
She looked up, taking in his rugged looks. “I didn’t expect to run into you in the produce section of the supermarket.” Kim did her best to ignore the frisson of attraction she felt in Mike’s presence.
“I’m not stalking you,” he said.
“I never thought you were,” she said.
He gave her a small smile that implied he didn’t believe her. Then he scooped up the head of iceberg lettuce and handed it back to her. “You nearly decapitated it.”
“You would think that way,” Kim said. She meant to sound stern but ruined it by smiling back at him.
“Hey, I’m a cop. Guess I tend to think in violent metaphors.”
Setting the Scene
Although you don’t want to overwhelm your reader with too much detail from the outset, settings need to be vividly described so that they seem real. Think like a film director. Create your novel in scenes as if it were a movie. Use imagery, direct appeals to the senses.
Editors often say they look for a unique voice and that it needs to show from the first paragraph. They dislike flat writing. It’s easier to demonstrate a unique voice when you’re writing in the first person, but that isn’t absolutely necessary. Voice depends on choice of vocabulary, character opinion, behavior, dialogue, description and actions. The best way to develop character voice is to have that individual live in your head for a time before you start to write a single word.
Take the time to put your manuscript aside for a while. Then when you pick it up again, you’ll see it with fresh eyes. You may see the need to rewrite the beginning sentences and paragraphs of your novel or short story, recognizing that this is crucial. You probably won’t get it right the first time. I confess I never do! With my latest novel, THE INHERITANCE, I added and then later removed a prologue.
I truly agonize over beginnings. I often edit and rewrite after several drafts have been completed. I go back after I finish to determine if the opening could be more compelling. I suggest asking some fellow writers and/or intelligent readers to look at your beginning and give an honest opinion. Hopefully, these suggestions will help you create the perfect narrative hook that will compel readers to read your work from beginning to end.
Here’s the beginning of The Killing Land, my Western romantic suspense action thriller:
“For the right price, we’d kill just about anybody.” Russell Harris studied the man sitting across from him in the saloon and tried to determine what effect his words were having.
The rancher met his level gaze with a look of satisfaction. “I like to get my money’s worth. You and your brother have big reputations. I want to make certain you can live up to them.”
“Long as you pay us,” Russell emphasized, rubbing the carrot-colored stubble on his chin.
As a reader and/or writer any comments, suggestions or input you would like to share are welcome here.
You are also welcome to share the beginning of one of your novels or stories.