It takes about three paragraphs to decide whether or not I’m going to buy that novel I just mindlessly picked up in the book store. Sometimes I’ll read the entire first chapter if I’m still on the fence, but those are rare occasions. Nine times out of ten, I’ve made my decision by the end of that third paragraph.
That means the writer has three paragraphs to present an interesting premise, a strong voice, and a character I’m willing to spend 200+ pages with. And maybe that sounds like an impossible standard to meet, but I’ve bought more books than I can fit in my house.
Three paragraphs is more than enough space. Hell–I’d say I’m even being pretty generous by reading that much. I’ve met pickier readers who only went by the first paragraph. There was a particularly tough event my old writers group offered where we’d critique and rank our interest level based completely on the first sentences of each others stories (which was ridiculous in hindsight, because it actually is pretty impossible to get a solid impression from just one sentence).
Point is, you have a very limited window to grab a readers attention, so a strong opening is indispensable.
In my old writers group, we learned a little checklist for things our opening paragraph(s) should contain and accomplish. I don’t have the damn thing memorized anymore, but it went a little something like this:
- Introduce your protagonist, preferably by name
- Introduce immediate conflict and foreshadow larger conflict
- Introduce your setting
- Don’t open with a dream
- Actually. Just don’t open with your character waking up at all
- Also. No flashbacks.
- And don’t open with dialogue
- AND FOR FUCK’S SAKE DON’T TALK ABOUT THE WEATHER THAT’S SO BORING OMFG
The list I learned was a lot longer than that, but that’s the gist of it. Aaand now you can go ahead and forget you read any of that, because I personally think it’s stupid to put any sort of limitations on a person’s creativity. You wanna start with dialogue or a full weather report? Go ahead.
The novel I’m writing now begins with a flashback to an out-of-narrative monologue, then jumps into the main character’s point of view on the second page. My main character goes nameless through the majority of the novel.
Basically, I’m breaking all the rules I put so much merit in back in the day. But I’m still super confident in my opening. Why? Because I open with a punch.
So. How exactly do you open with a punch?
Voice. A strong, interesting voice catches me every time. Take a look at some of your favorite books and pick out what makes the voices unique.
Disorient me. Most of my favorites left me completely bewildered after those first three paragraphs. I’m confused. I have questions and no idea what the answers could be. I’ll probably start reading in the parking lot.
Action over explanation. Back story can almost always wait until after you have your reader on the line. It’s best to give them something to sink their teeth into before you go unloading all the lore of your world. I’ll be much more interested in (and less likely to skim) the back story if I’m already invested.
Seriously. Action. It’s important. Like I said, you can start your story however you want, but boring
content will always be boring content. You wanna open your novel by
talking about the weather? That’s fine. But it’s only interesting to
read about if it’s something out of the ordinary. The blizzard of the
century. A damn meteor shower. Something I can’t just walk outside and look at.
Give me an existential crisis. This one might be specific to me, but I have quite a few favorites that, instead of starting with action, use their openings to scare the shit out of me with some horrifying theory or observation.
Of course, these are just a few ways you can punch your reader with your opening. Play around, experiment, and write your own hooks.
Happy writing, lovelies