by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
Whether or not you have trick-or-treaters approaching your house tonight, you already know how you're going to entice them toward your door for treats or a good scare. Or how you're going to indicate "no point stopping here, just move along."
Of course you don't want to send that second message to people considering your book. But the first one, enticing them? Absolutely. We all want readers to get the tantalizing invitation, "Come right in, there’s something wonderful waiting for you!"
You want the beginning of your story to give that exact message. The type of treats will vary according to your book, but as long as you have an idea of who you want to dive into Page 1 (and keep right on reading), you'll be able to show ‘em the “wonderful” awaiting them is very much the kind of thing they'll enjoy.
Well, obviously it depends on what your book will be. Sweet? Scary? Fast-paced? Leisurely? Historical? Contemporary? Inspirational? Paranormal? Romantic? Suspenseful? Steamy? Cozy? Puzzling? Comforting? Heart-wrenching? Thought-provoking? Humorous? Adventurous? Horrifying? Empowering? Relaxing? Dramatic?
There's no such thing as a Bad Answer to this question. Somebody might say "My book is for readers who want to fall asleep after reading for two or three minutes." Someone else might say "Mine is for readers who want to stay up all night feverishly turning pages." Others might be anywhere along the line between those two, or even beyond.
But, since we’re all readers ourselves, we know that whether a story opens on some British transport ship carrying convicts to Australia, at the corner Starbucks waiting for the daily venti brewed decaf, or behind the scenes at the first coronation in a new galaxy...
It might very well be the setting.
Or it could be the people.
Or quite possibly the situation.
There are even times when just the language -- the imagery, the choice of words -- is enough to enthrall us right from the start.
A book that grabs and holds our attention could easily open in the present day, in a place we know perfectly well. Maybe we’re on a midsize family farm examining the crop, or on a bus carrying people to work at the shoe factory, or in a high school auditorium rehearsing for the annual spring concert.
Regardless of whether the reader perceives this as a fascinating world or an everyday world, they need to see something intriguing.
What’ll make ‘em curious about this particular crop?
What shows this isn’t an ordinary day at the shoe factory?
What indicates there’s something unusual about the concert, or the auditorium, or the choir director, or the tenor in the back row?
That depends on your genre.
Your readers might want chills running down their spine.
They might want a glimmer of attraction.
They might want a hint of rivalry, or of injustice, or of something eerie. Something dangerous. Something romantic. Something challenging.
Whatever they want, the opening needs to hint that it’ll be revealed soon enough to keep ‘em engaged.
And what else will engage these readers? Oh, right.
That’s something the writer and readers will have to identify pretty early in the story. (At least the character’s OPENING goal and conflict.)
It’s okay to keep the reader guessing about someone’s internal motivation. If their goal is a grabber right from the start, this reader will be excited by your story’s beginning...and willing to wait another chapter or scene to get an idea of why your character wants this goal.
But regardless of WHY they want it, we’ve gotta know WHAT they want as of Scene 1. No matter how fascinating the landscape they’re traveling through, no matter how physically beautiful or how emotionally damaged they might be, we need to be rooting for some kind of goal.
It might not be the underlying goal that’ll sustain them throughout the story. It might be as fleeting as:
“make it through the intersection before the light turns red” or
“get the copies stapled before the boss arrives” or
“find the closest veterinary clinic before Little Fluffy chokes...”
...because while none of those is the kind of goal that’ll keep us enthralled for an entire book, it’ll give us something to root for while we’re still getting to know this person.
* What’s interesting about ‘em? (Even if it’s only their dialogue.)
* What’s fascinating about their story world / setting? (Even if it’s our own.)
* What’s compelling about their situation? (Even if it’s not fully explained yet.)
We want to be engrossed with them as early as possible. Are they likable? Fun to hate? Easy to empathize with? Exciting to root for? Do we want to spend time with them?
Readers of different genres have different reasons for wanting to spend time with a character, so think about what appeals to YOUR readers. And while you’re at it…
Because that’s our prize-drawing question: What WAS this opening?
It can be from a book written by you or by anyone else -- just say the author name, title, and why that opening made you want to keep reading.
And somebody who answers will win free registration to a two-week email class on this very topic (Boffo Beginnings & Fab Finales) beginning next Monday at groups.io/g/Boffo-Fab.
Meanwhile, here’s wishing you whatever kind of Halloween you enjoy most!
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Laurie Schnebly Campbell loves remembering favorite openings and favorite closings, and can’t wait to show the many ways of making yours boffo, fabulous, or whatever other Hollywood-blockbuster term you like. 🙂 Right now she has 51 books on her shelf from authors whose first sale was sparked by one of her classes, and she can’t wait to see what #52 will be.
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