GETTING READERS TO BITE INTO YOUR STORY
Schedules get more cluttered every decade. It’s hard today to convince people to make time to read. It’s even harder to convince them to keep reading if the first three paragraphs are dull. Many twenty-first-century readers won’t wait even that long; you have to hook their attention with the first sentence.
The best story beginnings arouse emotion: surprise, humor, concern. They introduce an intriguing situation or a likable character, encouraging readers to think, “This could happen to me” or “Here’s someone I’d like to know.” Don’t ever start with detailed scene descriptions or extensive historical background; if either is essential to your plot, there’ll be time to weave it in after the reader is hooked.
Always begin on the emotional note that will permeate the whole story: a light tone for a humorous piece, a grim tone for a dark one. More than that, your opening must be completely relevant to the rest of the story: no fair introducing an interesting eccentric character solely for his “hook” value, then letting him disappear without doing anything that influences the plot. No writer ever built a fan base by making readers feel cheated.
Don’t drag the opening out too long, either. Beginning with an intriguing conversation and letting it deteriorate into small talk is like setting a hook perfectly and then neglecting to pull in the line. Even once you have the reader’s attention, you can still lose it if the plot doesn’t flow smoothly. A story is not a line of loosely connected anecdotes; it’s a chain of events held together by a theme and leading to a satisfactory ending, as in “This happened; and because of this, that happened; and that made this happen; and this is how it all turned out.” Thus, a start appropriate to the story will relate to the ending—and to everything in between.
Knowing this can help you come up with a good opening. How do you plan to end the story? Design your hook based on that. If the last scene will show a narrow escape from a wildfire, foreshadow the possibility of that fire in the opening paragraph: “Eighty days ago, Michelle would have found the crimson sunset breathtaking. Now it seemed a bloody mockery of the grasslands’ misery. Yet another tomorrow with little hope of rain.”
If you’re stumped, remember that the first draft doesn’t have to be written in the order in which the manuscript will be read. Go ahead and tell the story any way it comes to mind, then quickly reread the first few pages and see if anything jumps out. It’s amazing how often the “real beginning” of a story turns up in the third paragraph—or chapter.
However you ultimately find it, the perfect opening is a treasure worth searching for. It’s a key element in one major secret of success—making everyone as eager to read your story as you were to write it.
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Katherine Swarts, Spread the Word's founder, owner, and head copywriter, has been writing professionally for more than ten years—and reading voraciously for as long as she can remember. She has a master’s degree in written communications from Wheaton College (IL), and has published over 100 articles.
Katherine has a bachelor's degree in English from Austin College in Sherman (TX), and a master's degree in written communications from Wheaton (IL) Graduate School. She has also studied with the Institute of Children's Literature, which publishes the monthly newsletter Children's Writer; two annual market guides; and an annual writer's yearbook.
Katherine is also a writer of Christian and inspirational poetry.
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