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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.
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?
It’s 1838, and May Bedloe works as a seamstress for her cousin, the famous actress Comfort Vertue—until their steamboat sinks on the Ohio River. Though they both survive, both must find new employment. Comfort is hired to give lectures by noted abolitionist, Flora Howard, and May finds work on a small flatboat, Hugo and Helena’s Floating Theatre, as it cruises the border between the northern states and the southern slave-holding states.
May becomes indispensable to Hugo and his troupe, and all goes well until she sees her cousin again. Comfort and Mrs. Howard are also traveling down the Ohio River, speaking out against slavery at the many riverside towns. May owes Mrs. Howard a debt she cannot repay, and Mrs. Howard uses the opportunity to enlist May in her network of shadowy characters who ferry babies given up by their slave mothers across the river to freedom. Lying has never come easy to May, but now she is compelled to break the law, deceive all her new-found friends, and deflect the rising suspicions of Dr. Early who captures runaways and sells them back to their southern masters.
As May’s secrets become more tangled and harder to keep, the Floating Theatre readies for its biggest performance yet. May’s predicament could mean doom for all her friends on board, including her beloved Hugo, unless she can figure out a way to trap those who know her best.
THIS IS THE MOMENT WHEN, in your story world, everything has changed. The stranger has come to town, the father has died, the mother has left, the best friend has announced that she’s moving to Pakistan.
Like In Media Res, in which you begin in the middle of the action, this technique relies on triggering a reader’s curiosity. The world has suddenly changed. What will happen now? That’s the question you want in the back of your readers’ minds at all times, but especially at the beginning.
Some examples: In The Lovely Bones, it is the moment when Susie, a teenage girl, gets lured into a neighbor’s secret bunker. In The Hobbit, it is the moment when the wizard Gandalf appears and talks to Bilbo, then leaves a mysterious mark on Bilbo’s front door. In The Light Between Oceans, this is when the childless couple manning a lighthouse finds a baby in a lifeboat.
This technique answers the question of why a reader should care by creating drama immediately that will result in—what? We want to know what. If you start big, you can afford to fall back a bit afterwards, a least for a bit. Layer in some characteristics; maybe even give a bit of back story. You have won the first battle: getting the reader’s attention.
Starting at the last moment possible allows for a dramatic chapter one, which is great, but it raises the stakes. Your reader will probably want more of the same. Of course, it would be difficult for the writer and tiring for the reader to have constant, building drama. There is an ebb and flow to everything, even our attention. Down time is important—but not too much. The writer needs to create enough sparks in chapters two, three, and so on to prepare for the next dramatic moment without losing readers.
And a dramatic moment doesn’t have to be a natural disaster or a gunfight; it can be as small as one character’s timely decision. Drama in the Greek means “Action.” Think of how many kinds of action there are in life! So don’t worry if your novel begins not with a death, but with a simple decision to write an anonymous letter. That’s an action. That’s drama. That’s starting at the last possible moment.
Previous posts in “The Cold Open” series: