Write It Sideways

In the Beginning: How to Draw in Your Reader

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.

A story either leaps off the page or it doesn’t.

Beatriz Badikian-Gartler once told our writing group that “Titles are a kind of promise you make to the reader.” Certainly, titles are important, but I think her point applies even more to the beginning of your story than to the title itself.

In the beginning, we establish our voice, invite the reader into our world, and tempt them to come along for the ride. We make a promise that the story to come will be worth their time and emotional energy.

And, attention spans being what they are today, we don’t have much time to get them hooked. In the age of the Internet, it’s estimated that a web page has three seconds to catch someone’s attention before they click off to another page. You can probably assume that you have a bit more time with fiction, since presumably the reader has come willingly to you. But you are still making a promise.

We can all think of famous first lines in literature, lines that continue to resonate long after the novel has been put back on the shelf. The classic “Once upon a time…” may be considered cliché, but it does a lot of work in just four words:

These are the kinds of things you want your own beginnings to accomplish.

Change of Pace

It used to be that the writer had loads of time to get a story started, but in today’s fast-paced world, some celebrated opening pages might not hold up. Let’s take a look.

Most people know “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. But how many people remember the rest of that first sentence:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Brilliant writing, yes, but I’m pretty sure that you wouldn’t be able to sell a 120-word first sentence today. And unless you are Charles Dickens, don’t even try. Can’t you just imagine a literary agent working with Dickens today?

“Hey, Charlie, you’ve got a lot of pretty words here at the beginning. I mean, it’s really good stuff. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ We get it. Stop there, dump the rest and start with the action scene in chapter 2. Sure, weave in a little backstory here and there, but stick to the plot. Tighten this baby up, cut out maybe 35,000 words or so and I think you’ll have a real winner.”

I’m kidding, of course, but today most stories don’t begin with such philosophical ruminations; they start in the middle of the action, or in media res. Author Patricia Lear once said: “The opening of a story is akin to an attack. It has to be strong.” Them’s fightin’ words, and they imply that you need to grab your readers by the throat, but what you really need to do is grab their attention.

Don’t Get Stuck at the Beginning

I want to take a minute here to reiterate that your first draft is not the time to hone your beginning. The job of a first draft is to get the story down. Sometimes, your first line may stand just as you wrote it. It may be that this first line was truly inspired—the inspiration for the story that was not yet completely formed.

More likely, though, you have the glimpse of an idea and you need to push through that first draft before the entire picture emerges. It may be that your first line is the last one you polish after all your revisions have been completed—that you find your true beginning at the end of the process.

The point is, don’t agonize over the beginning at the beginning. Save that particular angst for a later date. When you are ready to see if your beginning works, here are some suggestions.

Ask Your Beta Readers

This is a great task to assign to your trusted critique group. Presumably, these invited readers will give you the benefit of the doubt and read past even a terrible beginning. Ask them specific questions:

Look at the Words

Words are your paint box. The colors you choose for the beginning sentences of your story will set and light the stage.

The words you choose here tell the reader what to expect from you as a writer. Do you use language well? Are you gifted at your craft? Do you care enough to use rhythm and pacing and nuance in a way that’s never been done before?

Be specific. Specificity engenders trust. Name your characters. Set your story in a defined place and time. A telling detail can draw your reader in quickly by making your fictional world real. Words have literal meaning as well as emotional connotations. Think how a well-chosen noun can evoke setting, like parasol, palm tree, or rickshaw.

Though beginning with action is the current trend in fiction, delayed gratification has its pleasures. When you start with setting, you can draw the reader into your reality. Just don’t make them wait too long.

Find the Magic

Reading a great beginning is like falling in love at first sight. There is a certain amount of magic involved. No one can teach magic, but you can practice the tricks of the trade until your skills are so honed that the reader can’t see how you did it. You can’t see magic, you just believe.