By Lindsay Bandy
It’s date night at the Chinese Buffet. You grab a slightly wet plate and look over your steaming options. There are the dishes you’re pretty sure you’ll like, some you already know you hate, and others that you have no clue what they are, but you’re willing to give them a try. You take a miniscule helping of this and that, then decide what to take a heaping helping of for round two.
I like think of my Nook as a veritable smorgasbord of literature. I do a lot of sampling. I do some feasting, too. So here’s a question to consider: How many free samples do you have on your Nook or Kindle right now? Of those, how many have you actually clicked “Buy Now” and downloaded? How many books do you or your kids glance over at the bookstore and put back without giving them another thought? When you realize that you really only have a few pages to convince your readers to keep going, beginnings become seriously important!
In her excellent book Structuring Your Novel, Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, K.M. Weiland says: “Inevitably, the beginning chapters of a novel will be rewritten more than any other part of the story. They’re tough to get right because they must weave so many disparate elements into a seamless presentation that both entices and guides readers into the meat of the story.”
So what hooks readers? The answer depends, of course, on your genre and your audience. But I think that the sage advice of author Audrey Couloumbis applies universally: “Take your readers by the heart, and they’ll follow you anywhere.” *
For me, it’s all about an emotional connection. I have no patience for action without depth of character. However, I’ll put up with a lot of stuff on the road to finding out my beloved character’s ending. If I’m pulled into the emotion-laced problem of the main character from the get-go, I’m in!
Here are some examples of excellent beginnings that have made their mark on me:
- The Black Rabbit by Philippa Leathers is a wonderfully clever picture book that begins like this: “Rabbit woke up one morning and stepped out of his burrow into the bright sunlight. It was a beautiful day. But something was wrong. He was not alone.” The kids and I are hooked!
- In The Giver, Lois Lowry drops us into Jonas’ complex emotional world with the first sentence. “It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought.” The first chapter then gives us an intriguing introduction to the bizarre world Jonas lives in and a sense of anxious anticipation about the upcoming ceremony.
- The opening paragraph of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is striking: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.” Vivid, emotional, enticing.
- Veronica Roth sucked us into Divergent with an emotional connection to Beatrice right away: “…I will decide on a faction; I will decide the rest of my life; I will decide to stay with my family or abandon them.” Her genuine love for her family, her guilt for wanting to leave them, her forbidden curiosity, and the growing anxiety about the upcoming test and subsequent choice are all laid out within the first 7 pages.
Learn from the books that hook you. Learn just as much from the books that make no impression on you in the first few pages. Avoid the tragedy of a brilliant book with a weak beginning!
Your turn! Tell us about some books you’ve recently finished. What hooked you? An emotion, a unique voice, a thrilling action scene? On the flip side, what turns you off to a story in the first few pages?
*The source of my quote from Audrey Couloumbis was her presentation entitled “Writing to the Heart Without Tears” at the Lucky 13 MD/DE/WV SCBWI Conference in September, 2013.