How to grab, delight or shock your readers right from the start

“Every time mama came down on that shabby floor, the bullet lodged in my stomach felt like a hot poker.”

Claude Brown and I hunted through his manuscript for two days to find that moment and move it to the opening of his classic Harlem memoir Manchild in the Promised Land.

We wanted to detail the true grit of getting shot at age 13 while dealing drugs at a fish and chips joint, and to include the emotional drama of his mother jumping up and down in despair. We added the hot poker detail to scorch the reader’s sense of sight, sound, and visceral pain. We hoped this start-up moment would persuade them to buy the book. And if 4 million copies sold in 14 languages is hard evidence, something must have worked.

The importance of first pages

The first pages of your story create an instant impression of its quality and value. Agents, acquisition editors, reviewers and potential buyers standing in a store or scanning the First Pages feature on Amazon – are all going to keep reading or skip to the next candidate, depending on how they respond to your opening.

As a developmental editor, I often work with authors to reconstruct, revise, and create completely new openings. It’s a challenge editors face often, and it’s one of the most essential. Here are some of the main issues and how to solve them.

How to begin your book

The first sentence of your book must have compelling emotional energy, whether it’s the magnetism of the narrative voice, the wit of the smart dialogue, or the evocative description of the dramatic environment.

But an opening to a story is more than just one sentence, no matter how brilliant. That’s only the first step in getting the reader’s attention. Next you need to develop the whole scene.

Four techniques for creating a great opening

1.  Start with a moment that changes everything

As the author, you know how the story will evolve, but your reader doesn’t. Therefore, you can write an opening that throws everything up in the air, creating a whole new universe of anticipation in the reader’s imagination.

For example, in Albert Camus’s first sentence of The Stranger, Mearsault receives the telegram “Maman died today.” Then Camus continues “Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know”, moving on with an accelerating sense of dread, depression, and confusion. His mother’s death changes everything in his life and leads ultimately to the devastating end of the book, when on the way to being hung for murder, he accepts his life as both meaningless and filled with joy.

The importance of an enticing opening is the same whether you’re writing short stories or longer fiction. In her story collection Married Love, Tessa Hadley begins the piece In the Cave with the sentence “After the sex, he fell asleep”, a declaration that sure gets our attention. Then she follows up immediately with “That wasn’t what Linda had expected. Cheated – returned too soon into her own possession – she lay pinned for a while under his flung arm…”

Notice how she’s building on an uncomfortable predicament to show how everything is different than it was before? By now her readers want to know what Linda will do next: remained crushed beneath her comatose lover, or shove him off in anger and leave. And who is the guy anyway? What is their past and future together, if any?

It’s a skillful opening which builds momentum and sustains our desire to continue.

2. Establish a critical choice

Readers can resonate and identify with a character torn between two very different alternatives. It’s a common human dilemma, a fatal choice that can be exacerbated if the main character is under pressure, or has a destructive unmet desire. Your job as the author is to create personalities the reader can care about, then give them desperate alternatives that have no obvious solution.

Jeffrey Eugenides opens his recent novel The Marriage Plot which takes place in the early 1980s with his heroine Madeline waking up on her graduation day from Brown University. She’s hung over, her parents are banging on the door, and she thinks to herself that she’s “screwed up in matters of the heart.” We quickly learn that she feels duty-bound to make an impossible decision. Either she’s going to run away with the seductive but mentally unbalanced Leonard, or settle down with the boring Mitchell whom she knows is a “smart, sane, parent-pleasing” suitor who truly believes she’s destined to marry him.

In barely ten opening pages, Eugenides has plunged us into Madeline’s world of dire necessity without a clue as to what she’ll do next. We readers, on the other hand, have no choice. We’ve got to keep reading.

3. Introduce an irresistible character

An author can capture a reader’s attention by creating a charismatic personality whom the reader immediately cares about. As the author, you can tell us whatever weird, funny, desperate, destructive thoughts your character is having. You can put impulsive, savage, or incredibly romantic words in her mouth. You can add crucial details to her actions, environments, or responses from other characters.

For example, in Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s non-fiction memoir and #1 NYTimes bestseller, the first sentence reads “The trees were tall, but I was taller,” as she stands on a steep mountain slope in northern California after her hiking boot has skittered accidentally over the edge, lost forever. In a moment of abandon she tosses the mate over too.

She’s 26 years old, alone, “a stray…at loose in the world…I’d been pitching myself over the edge too.” She tells us how, as a former high school cheerleader and homecoming queen, she went off to college and became a left-wing feminist campus radical. Now she’s barefoot and forced to struggle on up the 2,663 miles long Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican to Canadian border.

Strayed tells us she’s doing this to save herself and inexorably draws us into the daily mystery of will she survive and if so, will she be any better off for it. She sets this stage in the first three pages.

Here’s another example, with a very different kind of character.

Pharmacy, the first story in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection Olive Kitteredge, opens as Olive’s husband Henry puts on his white lab coat in his modest drug store and begins a morning ritual that animates the mundane objects on his shelves – from vitamins to enema pumps — with anthropomorphic comfort that helps him deny “any kind of unpleasantness” between him and his wife who “often left their bed to wander through their home in the night’s dark hours.”

In her first two paragraphs, Strout’s description of Henry establishes his vulnerable but appealing insecurity, yearning, loss, loneliness, and grief that carries us through not only Pharmacy but every one of the book’s subsequent linked stories.

4. Set off an explosive action

Big bang openings have been traditionally associated with classic thrillers and mysteries. But who can resist a page-turning dynamite action opening in any kind of book? Explosive action has inspired memorable first pages from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina with the Oblonsky household in confusion and upheaval to Nicholas Spark’s NY Times #1 bestselling love story The Longest Ride, with its 91-year-old hero driving off the road in a blinding snowstorm, then crashing into a tree half way down the steep embankment.

I worked with Clive Cussler on his bestselling thriller Night Probe, crafting a breathtaking opening that takes place 70 years before the book’s contemporary story actually begins. A 118 ton locomotive and its long string of Pullman cars with 100 passengers aboard is derailed and plunges deep into the icy waters of the Hudson River. The horrific carnage and coiled snakes of plot lines springing open from this moment in time propels the reader onward to the present and an increasingly complex maze of characters with apparently separate but ultimately interwoven stories.

Remember to do this!

Get feedback

Savvy authors know they can always benefit from a second set of experienced and objective eyes. I’m biased of course, but the investment in a developmental editor to work with you on the opening can make or break the success of the entire story.

Sometimes the process of developmental editing requires going through the entire draft to find that instant in time which changes everything, or the critical choice, or a character’s first appearance or that explosive action — or a different compelling opening. As with Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, above, finding such a buried moment can be like a treasure hunt, and moving it to the opening pages can provide a stronger way to start. On other occasions, I’ve seen an opening become more forceful by adding a new detail, a carefully chosen action or word that brings the opening alive and escalates its meaning.

Plan ahead

I frequently consult with writers before their first draft is completed, which can save time and avoid false starts. I recommend a step-by-step outline of the opening moment before you start writing, plus three or four scenes for the rest of the first chapter, then the second chapter, and so on until the end of the book. This outline may change down the road, but resist jumping into that first draft until you’ve nailed down at least the first few chapters, and the ending too. It’s good to have a destination.

What about you?

How did you start your story? Are you satisfied that your opening grabs your readers and doesn’t let go? What kind of feedback are you getting? Send us a note with your experience and advice for fellow writers.

I’ll watch here in comments for any questions.

17 Responses to How to grab, delight or shock your readers right from the start

  1. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    Being an editor as well as an author of fiction and nonfiction, adult and juvenile/young-adult fiction and nonfiction, I agree with all of the above. With fiction I usually work with a loose, open-ended chapter-by-chapter outline. With nonfiction I like the outline to be more detailed. With fiction I noticed my outlines mutate in all directions. Some of the my outline endings to my novels changed drastically by the time I finished writing the story. But one novel I wrote, titled SEARCHING, I actually had the ending pop into my mind right from the start, even before I started developing the outline. It became my target to a difficult and involved plot about a racially divided America of the 1970s with flashbacks to the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960sm which also included an important subplot involving the main husband/wife characters. By the time I reached the ending, I kept the original words, but being the typical author, I added a couple more words that finished off the line perfectly. And I was completely out-of-breath by the time I crossed the “finish line.”

  2. Rosanne Dingli

    It’s often easier to choose after the first draft is down. But it can also be an agonizing thing, and the best opening must often be pointed out to the author, which is where the developmental editor comes in.
    An engaging protagonist goes without saying, yet we tend to underestimate the importance of intriguing props, or ordinary objects made intriguing. We tend to underestimate the setting which (with our engaging protagonist in it) becomes suddenly different to all other settings, and special because it is where (by some fluke) this unique event is taking place.
    Striving for uniqueness often fails, but striving to render ordinary places and commonplace objects suddenly riveting BECAUSE of clever writing and superb treatment by the complicated expedient of creating a unique protagonist (with some ordinary flaw or problem suddenly rendered engaging) is probably one of the hardest thing to accomplish as a writer. Even writing this and understanding it doesn’t necessarily make me better at it.

  3. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    That’s why writing will always be a challenge to every writer no matter how long one works at it. But that’s the way it ought to be. Sometimes we writers need a “kick in the pants” to keep us plugging along until we “think” we got it right, or until we smartly seek the help of a competent editor and his/her “fresh” pair of eyes on our story after we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.

  4. Greg Strandberg

    Usually the Chinese metro couldn’t be fast enough, but with an opening like Night Probe! grabbing my attention I wished I’d been a little slower getting to the platform that day.

    But in regard to outlines, well, I’m not so sure. I’ve written them and followed them and gotten a lot of use. I’ve skipped them and ditched them and also let them sit. Sometimes they help, sometimes they seem to hold me back. I almost never start with an outline anymore, although I may begin one after I’ve gotten a few pages, chapters, or just a pile of rubbish.

    What I do like is that they show you the end, or at least they should.

  5. CE Crum

    I once had a creative writing professor give us an exercize: find the best opening sentence in a novel. We were to research no less than 50 novels (the opening sentences of which we were also instucted to include and dissect).

    My personal favorite was the opening line to “Cannery Row” by John Steinbeck, one of the most descriptive sentences, word for word, that I’ve ever read. In fact, Mr. Steinbeck grabbed 4 of the top 10 spots in the essay. This, I believe, is a strong indicator that he was a journalist as well as a novelist. His journalistic instinct made him want to grab the reader’s attention from the very first word, if possible.

    I find myself in agreement with Greg Strandberg in terms of using an outline. I used to depend heavily on them. Now my approach is to come up with a strong ending, and the entire writing process thereafter is attaining that end. Using an outline (to me) oftens stifles the various twists and turns that suggest themselves along the way. Some of these affect – and positively, I like to believe – the outcome itself.

    Every writer is unique, obviously, and has their personal approach to writing. At times, when I find myself blocked temporarily, I write anyway. More often than not I stumble on the answer to the dilemma that caused the block in the first place. And, just as often, it only takes minimal editing to end up with a smooth narrative.

    Sometimes I even “watch myself write to see what will happen next.” It can be surprising what will come out of writing in this fashion. Ideas that are spontaneously written in this way appear as such to the reader, who is also taken unawares by the dynamic shift that just unfolded.

    It is my hope that the reader will say what the author thought at the time it was written: “Hmm…I didn’t see THAT coming!”

  6. How To Grab, Delight or Shock Your Readers Right From the Start | Yaminatoday - A Literary Blog That Entertains & Educates

    [...] is from Alan Rinzler’s literary blog The Book Deal. To read the full article, click here. The first pages of your story create an instant impression of its quality and value. Agents, [...]

  7. Belizean Artwork Publishing

    Great post… I will share with my writers.

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  9. Matt Roberts

    Some of what your saying sounds like boiling your story down to its essentials – a moment of change, a moment of internal conflict, a stand-out character.

  10. Alan Rinzler

    Matt,

    Identifying these essentials is part of the process, but deciding which of them should begin your book goes beyond that.

    Precisely which option you choose will depend on the underlying feelings you want to evoke in the reader, the emotional glue that holds together the entire narrative arc and where you’re going to land at the end — the denouement.

    Do you want to create a sense of thrill, unease, intellectual curiosity? Your book is uniquely your book and that’s where the literary artistic choices come in.

  11. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    I was told in my early days in the writing business that there was only one rule in writing and that is there is no rule in writing. Just opinions by “expert” writers on what works and what doesn’t. It’s your story; so, you write it the way your story wants to be told. Let your subconscious mind dictate the way for you. And if you have to break all the rules, so be it; just make it good. The competition for readers’ time and interest is fierce. But don’t let the fear monkey stop you, and don’t try to find time to write, just make time to write. Writers write: it’s as simple as that. If you don’t write, then how can you identify yourself as a writer? And if you make mistakes and the scenes don’t seem to be pushing the story forward, put the work aside for a while; then return to it later refreshed and ready to start revising. Writing is mostly donkey work anyway and the better the revisions, the better the work. Tip: find an editor you can work with. In the long run you will benefit; I can guarantee that from experience.

  12. R. Carl Irwin

    Well put Rosanne! Thanks!
    “Striving for uniqueness often fails, but striving to render ordinary places and commonplace objects suddenly riveting..”

  13. Patricia Mullin

    I have received feedback from two agents who have both stated that the opening of my novel ‘Casting Shadows’, lacks a ‘hook’. I have to say that I am really struggling with the re-draft. I am now considering moving forward a dramatic memory of my central character, recalling visiting her mother in a mental institution. I am glad to say that my character is quirky and compelling and ticks that box.

    Curiously, I am re-drafting another novel from the several years ago and that distance has made the process of re-drafting and editing far easier.
    This suggests that my problem lies in being too close to my current text, that I am struggling to see the wood from the trees. Any suggestions for getting over this hurdle would be welcome.

  14. MaryJHicks

    This was timely for me as I’m rewriting the first of my MS, trying for a stronger opening… Thanks!

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  16. Evelyn Donahoe

    Your advice changed my book…for the better, of course. We met at the Texas Writers’ League Agents’ and Editors’ conference in 2012 where your comments (not all positive) about the early steps of my memoir helped put me on the right track. The working title at that time was “Channeling Mae West” and this memoir about the balancing act of widowhood has “grown up” since that date. Now adding polish to a sixth rewrite, I’m certain that “my girl” will see bookstore shelves!
    It’ll be fiction from now on – truth is too damn painful! So expect to hear from me for future projects.
    And Thank You for being both kind,and not so kind. :-)

  17. Alan Rinzler

    Evelyn,

    Glad to hear the advice was helpful. Who could forget that title “Channeling Mae West”?

    I look forward to seeing your future projects and will make every effort to remain kind at all times.

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