The Writer’s Meal: Capturing your reader in the first sentence
Introduce a character.
Introduce a theme.
Open with a setting.
or open with a scene.
Start it with dialogue
and you start it vague, but true.
Begin a book with flashbacks
and you rip a book in two.
Honestly, I didn’t plan on opening this post with a random poem. I was taking notes on the topics I wanted to cover, and it rhymed. So before you laugh, I didn’t write that with the intention of it being a poem. It wasn’t going to exist, but now it does. Welcome to my head. Now, let me welcome you to your story.
The Opening Chapter Is The Most Important Chapter
The first chapter of your book or novel is the most important because you only have a few pages to persuade your reader that your story is worth reading. According to an infographic survey on Goodreads, 51 percent of readers give their book 100 pages or less before they put down the book if it isn’t interesting. Almost 16 percent of those surveyed put down the book if they weren’t interested within 50 pages or less. This number may not seem incredibly large, but consider the population of readers.
We know more than 1 million people read, and we know they typically read more than one book in a year. But for the sake of my own sanity because math is not fun, let’s play with 1 million. If my math is
write (<– My brain is saying to write and stop doing math.) right, 160,000 of those readers will lose interest in your book before the first 50 pages. Whoa! The number is suddenly a tad more intimidating now, isn’t it?
Where to Begin
You can start a book in a number of ways, a few of which I have in my poem-looking thing up there. Whether fiction or non-fiction, a book needs to begin with something that the reader wants to turn the page to learn more about. Don’t worry, you don’t have to reveal all your secrets in the first 50 pages. In fact, you don’t have to reveal any. You just have to give them something to snack on so they will have a growling stomach when the real meal comes. That’s what appetizers are for, right?
(The series is called The Writer’s Meal. So yes, every post will be compared to food. For those who have read the article about writing an outline and why you should write it, this isn’t the same. The salad is a side dish. Not an appetizer.)
The key is starting off with the right bite. You can open a chapter in many ways and how you open the chapter can determine how you will progress within that chapter, which is a very important aspect of it all, of course.
Introducing a character
One way to start a book is by introducing a character. If you’re writing an autobiography or biography, this is more than likely going to be the path you take. Not always, but I have read few of these that don’t begin by introducing the main character.
This can apply for fiction, too. When introducing a main character as a book’s “opening act,” in any genre, the key is to make them relatable, flawed, or interesting in some way. We don’t need ten pages on their description, family, and self-reflection while they’re buying a burger. If the book is about someone dieting, the burger self-reflection may work. But like every guideline, there are exceptions. Take all advice as a guideline, unless it’s grammar. Grammar is important.
Here are a couple examples of good character opening lines:
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen:
“Roy would not have noticed the strange boy if it weren’t for Dana Matherson, because Roy ordinarily didn’t look out the window of the school bus. He preferred to read comics and mystery books on the morning ride to Trace Middle.”
You get to know a little about Roy, but you also find your setting. Roy is a student in grade school, and he’s a relatable character. Relatable characters are always interesting, even if they don’t seem to be in the beginning. Another thing we have is a question. It immediately appears in the first sentence. Strange boy? Who? Maybe we should keep reading and find out.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell:
“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
We all know this gorgeous woman who is flawed but incredible. Or beautiful and crazy. Or odd but amazing on the inside. We can relate to this. We know something about Scarlett in the first sentence but because we can relate and because we immediately have a question: Who are the Tarleton twins? we have a reason to continue reading.
Don’t open with a character without reason. Give them a purpose. Who are they and why do we care? This is the question you should answer. I don’t care if his/her/its hair is brown or if he/she/it bites nails. I care about what I’m reading and why I should give this book the time of day. Give me a question I want the answer to. Present me with a character I can cheer for, hate, or appreciate. Don’t make me wonder why they’re there, make me wonder if I could have lived without knowing them.
Introduce a Theme
If your book or novel is written around a theme, sometimes opening this way will benefit your book more than any other opening. If your book is about someone who overcomes racial discrimination in a small town, the theme may attract more people than the character or the setting. The theme speaks to a specific audience and you’ll increase your number of interested and engaged readers if they know they’re picking up a book they want to read.
Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
This is a very long sentence. Very…very…long. But that’s okay! This was a good use of rule breaking. This opening line sets the theme. Well, themes. Love and family, oppression and hatred. It begins with a theme, and you know this will follow a tone throughout the story.
Chromos by Felipe Alfau:
“The moment one learns English, complications set in.”
This is a simple line that sets up the story well. It immediately introduces a question that you’re not immediately concerned about, but it’s developed throughout the story as coming to America is portrayed to be more complicated than desired for immigrants.
Some opening lines are simple, but they set the tone for the entire story. I mentioned that you have fifty pages to make a reader interested, but the first line is the first step to reaching those fifty pages with the proper words. That first sentence sets the standard for the entire book.
Open With a Setting
It seems to be a favorite choice, opening with a setting. Part of the reason for this is because writers tend to think about movies. All movies have an establishing shot: an opening scene that shows you where things take place. It’s usually in the opening credits where the pretty music (or creepy music) plays and the voices of the characters dissolve in until they overtake the music and the music fades out.
We’re writers, not movie producers. This doesn’t mean we can’t open with a setting, but it does mean we need to understand why we want to open with a setting. We don’t have music, and we don’t have running waterfall noises to help set the tone along with the scene, and that’s important. If you’re setting the scene, you’re also going to have to set the tone because it’s harder to do so when you’re talking about flowers or a desert. Look at a couple of examples and it may make more sense.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck:
“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas river drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.”
This automatically brings you to the rough side of nature, and it sets the tone to be more peaceful. The description continues and the book is about two men who try to look for work but one keeps getting himself into trouble. One of the major themes in this story is peace because that is the end goal for these two men. Peace is important, and they talk about the peaceful lives they will have one day. The setting set this tone and although the story has a lot of rough moments, you still have hope that they will find that peace.
Holes by Louis Sachar:
“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.”
It’s not hard to guess that the tone set here is a miserable one. It’s dull, empty, vast, and barren. Barren was redundant, but this description is so miserable, I felt it necessary. If you’ve read this book or even seen the movie, you know how miserable these kids are. The introduction set this tone and without it, your mood would have to ease into a miserable state and you wouldn’t be right there with your main character. It’s easier to sympathize when you know the whole story.
Setting is a hard concept to fuze into your book because readers aren’t always reading to know what color the trees are. Because of this, your setting needs to put them in a mood that will encourage them to read so they can figure out why they need to be in that mood. Don’t leave them hanging; give it to them. If you want to make them miserable, let them figure out why they’re feeling that way. If they are feeling all mushy-gushy inside, let them know why in the next fifty pages. But don’t make them figure out what they’re supposed to feel. Give them a reason to feel it.
Open With a Scene
Lately, opening with a scene has become more common because of the short attention spans people have these days. It’s modern technology, not a disability. We’re simply an impatient world. So writers want to give readers what they want, and they want to give it to them now. This is a dangerous position because you can easily throw your reader off by doing this, but there is a right way and there is a reason. Trust me, doing it just to catch their attention is like me running up to a stranger, screaming in their face, then running off. They may feel adrenaline for a moment, but they’ll sit there in confusion and when I run off, they’ll probably watch and wonder what the heck just happened. Don’t do this to your reader, by the way.
Again, starting with a scene isn’t bad at all. But you don’t want to throw your reader in a shark tank and leave them alone to figure out who they are, why they’re there, when or if they’ll get out, and how. That’s frustrating. Don’t frustrate your reader. If you want to place them in a scene, allow that to be your chance to introduce them to your character’s perspective and possibly the current life he or she is leading. Give your reader something about your story to hold on to while they form questions of their own that wonder about the scene you captured them in. We’re social. Humans love meeting humans and hermits LOVE meeting fake humans. We like these things so make your character someone we can meet, like introducing yourself at a party. You’re interested in the room and the strange house, but you’re there for the person you met.
The Glassblower by Petra Durst-Benning:
“Ruth had already gone upstairs twice that morning to try to wake Johanna. Both times her sister had grumbled something that led her to believe—wrongly, as it turned out—that she really was going to get up. “
We all understand this scene, for those who have younger siblings. It’s relatable, I already want to give Johanna a knuckle sandwich… This is good. We can step in Ruth’s shoes because we’re meeting her and since we know a little about what’s happening, we can walk with her through that, as well.
Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:
“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the atters and charcoal ruins of history.”
This is a bit different from the above example because it’s not as clear, but it sets the tone in the sense that it tells you something is happening. Something odd and enticing is telling you that what is going on is something you want to know. It’s grim and it’s action. Dangerous. It’s something dark. You can enjoy it because it’s automatically telling you the book isn’t something you always see and as curious people, we want to read to understand why it’s so dark.
Dialogue. Oh, dialogue. I made the mistake of dialogue but I didn’t know at the time. Consider eavesdropping. How often do you listen to a stranger? Rarely. It has to be something really interesting like talking about burying a body or how he cheated on his wife. If it’s not incredibly interesting, it’s just a dude on the phone.
Opening with dialogue guarantees your reader will have to backtrack because when you opened with dialogue, your reader was clueless and knew nothing about your character. When your reader meets your character, they have to go back to read the dialogue if they want to understand the purpose or meaning behind it all. If you don’t think the dialogue is important enough for them to turn back to understand better, why are you starting with dialogue? That means it’s not very important.
War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy:
“’Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now nothing more than estates taken over by the Buonaparte family. No, I give you fair warning. If you won’t say this means war, if you will allow yourself to condone all the ghastly atrocities perpetrated by that Antichrist–yes, that’s what I think he is–I shall disown you. You’re no friend of mine–not the ‘faithful slave’ you claim to be… But how are you? How are you keeping? I can see I’m intimidating you. Do sit down and talk to me.’”
As incredible as books like this one are, it’s easy to say by the end of this quote, you have absolutely no idea what’s going on. You don’t know who is talking and you can’t empathize or have any emotional connection to this quote. If you keep reading, you may have the necessary connection the author wants you to have, but you would have had a better reaction to this quote if you had gained a little information on the one who said it. That aside, this is a very interesting opening because it introduces the conflict immediately–or one of them. You do learn a little about the one speaking, as long as this quote is, and it’s an impressive take on the dialogue as an opener.
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
“’What does this mean.–What–does this mean….’”
You will read this and continue down the page, skimming through a large section because you want to know what they are talking about. What does what mean? That’s the question, now isn’t it? This quote introduces you to a confused character that you immediately feel irritated with because you were thrown in the middle of something you know little about, if anything at all. You arrive in the scene under a veil, unsure whether you should care, whether this character is someone you should trust or hate…and you may need to jump back to this quote when you finally figure out what the character is talking about because you want to see if maybe you know what that means. (“That” being the thing this character can’t understand the meaning of. See how confusing it is?)
Thank you to one of my readers for these quotes that open with dialogue. Dialogue is possible, but it’s not the best choice. Trust your character, your story, your theme, or your scene. Don’t trust words to make words interesting. Trust the story to make words beautiful and fun. Trust your voice and your character’s created voice to make the story what it is.
Find the Best Opener for Your Story
There are tons of ways to begin a story. There are hundreds of ways not to begin a story but I won’t go into that; at least, not in this article. There is an opening that will fit your story, and there isn’t really a wrong way IF IT WORKS. Don’t think you have to open it a certain way because your favorite author did it a specific way. Your book isn’t their book. What worked for them may not work for you. Find out what your book needs and take your reader to it. Write it out, try different openings, and choose the best one. It sounds like hard work and it is, but it’s important. Anyone can walk in a book store and buy a book, but they have hundreds to choose from so if they take a chance and open your book to page one, make that first page something they can’t get out of their head.
I hope this helped, and I hope y’all read it all because this was one of my longer articles. That means it has a lot to offer. 😉
Have a wonderful day.
Elizabeth. “What Makes You Put Down a Book?” Goodreads. Goodreads, 9 July 2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.