YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE Stephen King to start your narrative with something scary. You don’t even have to be writing a horror story. Maybe you just want to grab your reader’s attention right away. Starting with a scary scene or description not only grabs a reader’s emotion—which is a wonderful way to keep them on the page—but also creates a compelling visual image in the reader’s mind. An alley where the dumpsters are overflowing with garbage. Footsteps. A sudden cold breeze.
This technique works well with certain genres, such as mysteries, thrillers, and, of course, horror stories. But it can and has been used with literary novels and contemporary up-market stories as well. Maybe the scene you write is a misdirect — at the start it seems as though a boy is about to get killed by a stranger, and then the stranger turns out to be the boy’s mother. But guess what? In that first page you’ve already done some of the heavy lifting of writing: establishing the characters and time and place in an interesting way.
Even if you don’t want to start with a fright, you can get the same effect in other ways. Because what I’m really talking about is setting a specific, compelling atmosphere. Setting up a specific atmosphere—whether it’s scary, eerie, bucolic, festive, exotic, or other-worldly—is a great way to captivate your reader. It also gives you almost instant style.
“The primary thing you must do is encourage your reader to think about your situation in such detail that she can’t help but keep thinking about it. This what compelling, picturesque, and vivid details are for.”
You can evoke the Christmas spirit by beginning your novel on the day before Christmas, or the Halloween spirit by beginning (where else) on Halloween. You can set your novel in a foggy swamp (evoking mystery, possibly danger) or an eighteenth-century cove (innocence, romance, or maybe danger if it’s a pirate’s cove). The immediate sense of place does much more to anchor a story than almost anything else.
The setting also draws readers in. As we read we like to paint pictures in our minds, and the more specific the picture, the better. This coupled with a strong emotional pull may not guarantee that every reader will stay with you, but it puts the odds up quite a bit.
So get scary (or romantic or bizarre or exciting). Play with your readers’ emotions. Be manipulative. Start fast and then slow down. This is not the only way to begin, but it’s a tried and true technique.
And after that first scene, you can draw a breath and begin to spin out your story more slowly. You’ll have your readers’ attention now, and that’s exactly what you want.
Other posts in “The Cold Open” series: