As authors, we all know the importance of engaging our audience within a book’s first few pages. It’s called grabbing the reader: captivating them in a way that makes them want to stick with the story to its end.
Michael Hauge prefers the term seducing:
“Everybody likes to be seduced; it’s a gradual, enjoyable, and emotionally involving experience that thoroughly captures our attention.” (Writing Screenplays That Sell)
Whatever your terminology, drawing in readers is a vitally important process that needs to happen at the beginning of your story. Also called the set-up, it’s everything that occurs before the all-important catalyst that propels your character out of his regular world into a new one. According to Blake Snyder (Save the Cat), the set-up should consist of roughly the first 12% of your story. This is a guideline that you can set in stone or take with a grain of salt, depending on your plotting/pantsing style. But 12% is a good rule of thumb because it’s enough real estate to set the stage and draw readers in without it dragging on and putting them to sleep.
Unfortunately, we can get the length of the set-up right and still not achieve the goal of pulling readers in. To do this, we have to tap into their emotions. If we don’t make them feel, they won’t be invested in the character; if they’re not invested in the character, they won’t care what happens to him and won’t keep reading to see if he succeeds. So it’s incredibly important that the set-up elicit emotion from the reader. There are a few things you can include in your opening pages that will help accomplish this.
Readers start reading a book for a variety of reasons: they liked the premise, it was a recommended by a friend, they’re a fan of the author. Readers keep reading because they connect with the characters. We have a very small window—that first 12%—to achieve the reader-character connection, and eliciting empathy is a great way to make it happen. Here are a few ways to encourage that special something between the reader and your protagonist.
Well-written conflict inherently elicits emotion—anticipation, yes, as the reader worries about the protagonist’s well being, but it also can generate feelings like nervousness, frustration, or fear. Create a situation many readers have experienced or can imagine going through, and you’ve added relateabilty, too.
This conflict can be overt and obvious, such as a fistfight, terrorist attack, or someone fleeing for his life. But this doesn’t always work in the set-up because the reader hasn’t had enough time to get to know the protagonist and care about what happens to him. Conflict at this stage is often more effective when it’s hinted at or implied. In Stephen King’s Under the Dome, we first see Dale Barbara as he’s leaving town after “taking a pretty good beating at The Mill.” That’s the only reference to his altercation, but it’s enough to tweak the reader’s empathy meter and pique interest. Why’d he get beaten up? Who did it? If he’s innocent, why is he leaving town?
Conflict can also be internal rather than external. A character struggling with an important decision, questioning himself, or denying a wounding event from the past can be just as compelling as a five-care pileup. However it manifests, be sure to include some conflict in your set-up; done well, not only will it tug the reader’s heartstrings but it will keep up the pace, too.
The Need For Change
Most people—readers included—want to improve and grow, to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. They understand that change, though difficult and sometimes painful, is needed in order to achieve growth. This is why, at their most basic level, stories are about necessary change. Sometimes this change is internal, played out through the character’s arc as he works to overcome fears or wounding events and embrace the fullest version of himself. Sometimes it’s external—something within the world itself that needs fixing, such as the existence of the one ring in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The most compelling stories often contain elements of change that are both internal and external.
The set-up is the perfect place to show what needs to be changed for your character; it allows you to hint at what has to happen for the character to be fulfilled by the story’s end. Sometimes this means showing the character’s biggest flaw, the one she thinks is a strength but is really crippling her. In other cases, it might require showing an inequality or injustice in the character’s world that the character must alter in order to pursue her dreams. What has to change before your character can achieve his or her overall goal? Reference this in your opening pages and you’ll clue readers in to what has to happen for your hero to emerge victorious.
Story set-ups are tricky; we always want to include more information than they need. To stay on the straight and narrow, remember the two-fold purpose of the set-up: introduce the character in his world so it makes sense for readers, and draw readers in by activating their emotions. (The Story Maps tool at One Stop For Writers can help you organize your set-up and other important turning points while keeping them in proper proportion.) Remain focused on these outcomes, and you’re on your way toward drafting a story start that will keep readers engaged well beyond the opening pages.
Do you struggle with the set-up? Do you love the set-up? What tips do you have for creating a reader-grabber set-up?
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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Great post, Becca. I just checked out 'One Step For Writers.' How have I written without this?? Thank you for sharing!
Thank you, Lori! And I'm so glad you and One Stop have formally been introduced ;). Biased, I know, but I think it's fairly awesome.
Becca - I keep a 'cheat sheet' for my openings. I just took copious notes, and a lot of your points are going to be added to it.
The examples are spot-on too - Katniss! Will Hunting! Scarlett!
Thanks SO much for the wonderfully helpful blog!
I do love using popular examples, so I'm glad they resonated with you. A cheat sheet is a great idea. Openings are so hard; keeping a checklist of some kind could really help. Best of luck!
Excuse me? You have a cheat sheet for openings and I've never seen it? Send me a copy please. I can't even imagine what this thing must look like....
Margie Lawson (of course) had the first ten points or so. I've added to it. When I get Becca's stuff on it, I'll send it...
I'd love to see it too!
Great guide to get started on your story and use it as a guide, Becca! A great way to reinforce this is to look at your favorite books and their openings as well to decipher what drew you in - related to your list here. 🙂
Yes! Why reinvent the wheel? We can learn so much from people who've already been successful.
What a great post, Becca! Love having you on WITS.
I'm so happy to be here, Orly. Thanks for letting me crash the joint ;).
Thanks, Becca. Your ideas just provoked a great idea for my beginning!! What a gift.
Oh, that makes my day! I'm so happy to hear it. Best of luck with your new idea!
I enjoyed this post. It reminded me of a book I tried to read yesterday.
It started with a prologue, exciting thing were happening. But Chapter 1 started with a new character. I've made it 20% into the book and the original POV character hasn't been back.
Without the character I imprinted on, I lost interest. Plus, the 20% of the book that I read had 5 different POV characters. I would start to get invested in a character and then -- poof! -- off to a new character's viewpoint.
The need for change -- I think sometimes writers are afraid they won't hold the reader's interest unless they jump from POV to POV. As a reader, I find it the greatest way to make me walk away.
Evelyn, this is a great first-hand example of why so many prologues don't work. We think they're necessary in order to lay the foundation, but 99% of the time, they're not. And when they are, they have to be done right. Which is hard. Because this ties in with how to make your set-up work, I'll share a post I wrote on a prologue that DID work, and why (in case anyone could use the info): http://writershelpingwriters.net/2013/12/prologue-done-right/
Thanks for reading!
Becca: I keep all three of your Emotional Thesaurus' at my side when I write. This article above will now be added to the others. It has caused me to rethink my first page intro to my sixth book, after numerous rewritings, and I feel it is a winner now. Thank you so much. I will be ordering the book.
Thanks for the kind words, Sandra. I'm glad the books are coming in handy!
Great post Becca--you've really distilled not only the elements we need to have in place to pull readers in, but also why. This will help many struggling writers who are trying to figure where to start. 🙂
Outstanding article! Thanks for doing what you do =)
It's my pleasure, Sharon.
Thanks for a great checklist that works as a how-to, Becca! I'm still deep in the midst of revising, and today I'm starting back at the beginning for the final pass. Talk about timely!
Woot! What great timing. Best of luck!
Timing is everything. I was LITERALLY editing the opening of my WIP and took a break to read your blog. Thanks for the tips...I'm putting them to work today!
Well that worked out perfectly :). I'm so glad you took a break when you did.
YES. This is an awesome post, and very helpful as well. I personally LOVE writing the set up... but I'm not very good at it. The very first thing I do whenever I sit down to write a new story is write the very first scene. For some reason I can't start anywhere else. Right now I'm kind of in between writing a story and editing it... the first draft is completely written, now I'm taking a little break before I go back and revise it. The set up will be the first thing I work on.
I love how you gave a list of all the different ways to make readers empathize with your characters. It got me thinking. 🙂
Talia, I'm also a very linear writer in that I have to start at the beginning. It would probably be an interesting experience to start somewhere else next time and see what happens. Though the idea kind of freaks me out, lol.
[…] easiest way to learn this is to notice how it is done in other books. (For more tips on how to craft a powerful set-up, check out Becca’s recent post on the […]
I've been struggling with the first chapter of one of my WIPs for a while now, so I find this post very timely. Thanks for the helpful tips Becca!
Awesome! First chapters are so hard. Hopefully this info will help, even a tiny bit :).
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