We’ve all heard about the importance of first impressions, and there are warehouses full of data which support the concept. For a novel–especially for a writer’s first novel–nothing is more important. If the opening of your story fails the first impression test with the reader, she’s gone. Forever. She’s not going to look back; she’s not going to give you a second chance, much less a second thought. You’re done.
It’s possible the next reader (hopefully, the next “book buyer”) will completely connect with your opening. Shazaam! They’ll be in love. It’s possible, sure, but very unlikely. The goal of an opening should be to appeal to a mass audience, and if the first reader turns up her nose, chances are the second one will, too. And the third, etc.
In speed dating, the first few seconds of eye-to-eye contact are the most critical. Likewise, when a reader first meets your book, your opening words face a similar prospect. You must demonstrate, in a handful of sentences, a few paragraphs at most, that the story you want to share is worth reading. The opening must be so good the person holding your book will be moved to pay for the privledge of reading it.
Reader courtship is a challenge, but it’s one all novelists must meet if they desire to be successful. The speed dating analogy offers several parallels. Originally created by Rabbi Yaacov Deyo to help Jewish singles make new acquaintences, the practice has expanded to assist a wide variety of people to meet others of similar circumstances. The opening of your book should seek to do the same.
If you’ve written something that falls entirely within a single genre–a western, a romance, a space opera, or a spy story for instance–that ought to be reflected in your opening. The most important elements in the opening, however, are character, conflict, and setting. In other words: a person, in a place, with a problem.
In the speed dating universe, many participants make a decision about whether they want to see more of a person in the first thirty seconds. Talk about pressure to perform! It’s not all that different when it comes to your opening. In traditional writer parlance, this process is called setting a hook, but I think that term denigrates the reader. I’m not looking to reel in a trout; I want to engage the curiosity and imagination of a human being who will not only enjoy my work, but who will tell their fellow readers about it.
Doing that means engaging my readers–making them care about my characters and/or their issues. At the very least it means I have to pique my reader’s curiosity. And do so quickly. On page one, if possible.
Maybe it’s better to think of that first encounter as a blind date rather than a speed date. In either case you’d want to do everything in your power to look and act like someone who’s company is worth keeping. It’s the same for your book. You just can’t afford to make a bad first impression.
So, what goes into an engaging opening? Does it have to be short and snappy, or can it take a little time to develop? Thank goodness it doesn’t have to be written in 30 seconds. I’m quite certain some of the best openings, as short as they are, took a long time to craft. How you might go about that is something we’ll tackle in the next installment. Stay tuned.