WHEN YOU BEGIN your novel using certain techniques, such as “In media res” (in the middle of the thing) or “At the last possible moment,” you are deliberately planting a question in your readers mind. In the first instance, the question is “What is going on?” and in the second, “What will happen now?” These are great ways to trigger a reader’s curiosity.
But you can also pull that trigger by, literally, asking a question.
Such as the question that begins perhaps the most famous work of fiction:
(Hamlet, William Shakespeare)
Or how about this:
“What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?”
(Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer)
This technique immediately engages the reader. It calls on the reader to be, almost, part of the narrative itself. The story is not being told as much as it is being explored together, reader and writer.
And—bonus!—asking a question has the added attraction of “breaking the fourth wall,” as they say in theatre. Since you’re addressing the reader, he or she is instantly (we hope) engaged. There is an intimacy created on the spot. If we do it well, that reader will be more involved than usual.
But here’s a warning: If you start with a question, you must then consider how much you want to engage the reader as you go along. Too much involvement is intrusive; too little feels as though the use of your initial involvement was merely a trick. And of course it is a trick—although you don’t want the reader to feel as though it is!
Naturally this trick works better with some forms of fiction—such as literary fiction—than others. But there are work-arounds. Let’s say you’re writing science fiction. Maybe a computer asks the question. Or—for a romance—a young man asks the pretty heroine if he can share her cab. These aren’t questions to the reader, of course, but in the heady confusion of beginning a new story, a reader might well feel at first as though she’s being addressed. And voila, she feels connected.
Even if it doesn’t work with your beginning scene, asking a question at the start of a chapter or section adds energy to your story. Just as an exercise, try using this writing prompt to start a scene. . .
“What do you want from me?”
. . .and see where it gets you. What have you got to lose?
Other posts in “The Cold Open” series: