My thirteen year-old son shrugged. “It just doesn’t grab me.”
I’ve drafted my first-ever children’s book, and I’m cajoling every child of my acquaintance to read it and tell me what they think. My very helpful nieces have done so, without the need for emotional blackmail, bribery or threats (thank you, Rhiannon and Briley!) But my own kids haven’t made it past the first three pages. Which is a pretty big red flag.
Every “How-to-Write-a-Book” book gives the same advice – grab the reader on the first page. Once she’s hooked, maybe you can let the pressure off a bit (unless you’re Matthew Reilly). But it’s fatal to let the reader get a few pages in and give up, because nothing exciting or intriguing has happened to “grab” her.
I’ve always been a bit skeptical about this advice. Many of the books I love start with paragraphs of description – of a place, or a character – a bit of mood-setting, some information, even a philosophical rant. But I recognise, firstly, that such openings tend to be associated with older works (my editor friend Helena Bond has pointed out that most Georgette Heyer books begin with description rather than action or dialogue). And even a low-key opening must offer the reader something she wants, some promise she’s keen to see fulfilled.
I’m having a quick look at a random selection of books lying around my house at the moment, and the various techniques authors use to hook us in.
Teaser – a sneak peak at story’s climax
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (shut up, I’m loving it) begins with a scene you know must be from the climax – then goes back and narrates the events leading up to it. First line: “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” That’s a grabber.
Similarly, Miranda Darling begins The Siren’s Sting with a dramatic event involving two characters, then starts the main story some time earlier. The protagonist is not one of the characters we’ve briefly glimpsed in the prologue, so the tension that pulls us into the story initially is the desire to know who these two people are, when the protagonist will meet them, and what the opening scene will turn out to mean in the larger context of the story.
Prologue – events that occur before the main story begins, and cast a shadow
An Imaginary Life by David Malouf, my favourite book ever, starts with a brief prologue introducing the two main characters on a kind of mythic level – appropriate for a book narrated by a poet. I remember being intrigued and wooed by the style, the mood and the mystery.
Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach is somewhat similar, beginning with a brief “Part One”/prologue referring to events which occur before the main story begins. The promise is that the significance of these events will be unfolded over the course of the story. Evelyn Waugh does the same in Brideshead Revisited. Kim Wilkins does it in The Resurrectionists, but in this case the Prologue occurs only a short time before the main story starts, and is the immediate catalyst for it.
Keri Hulme, in The Bone People, uses her prologue to introduce her main characters, but very cryptically. You know you’ll have to go back and re-read it, once you figure out what’s going on.
Danielle Wood’s The Alphabet of Light and Dark introduces her protagonist as a child, seventeen years before the story begins, and her second main character as a young man three years before the story begins. At this stage we have no idea whether they know each other. Some of the expectation, therefore, is about when and how they’ll encounter each other story and what will be the result.
Prologue-Epilogue frame – start with events that occur after the story has finished
David Malouf’s Johnno starts with a Prologue in which the narrator is going through his father’s effects after his death. The narrator finds a photograph, which triggers memories of his friend Johnno. The story proper explores the history of that relationship. What sucks me in on the first page is the situation – a man describing his father, his father’s death, his own reaction. It’s a situation at once so common and so unique, of course I care and of course I want to read more about it.
Beginning at the beginning – origin stories
Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes begins with an unnamed instrument-maker creating the accordion of the title. What grabs me is the close focalisation, the instrument-maker’s intense concentration and passion, and the rich vivid sensory depiction of details. The lacquer on the instrument is “gleaming like wet sap”. The maker is someone who hears harmonies “in the groan of hinges”. The promise of this opening is that the writer has constructed her story with the same fanatical care and attention to detail as the instrument-maker creating the accordion, with which we are about to pass a hundred years.
Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, of course, starts with a character who has a silly name, doing something intricately pointless but exquisitely linguistically funny. Solid Jackson is fishing for Curious Squid, “so called because, as well as being squid, they were curious”. Okay, I’m hooked.
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman, begins with a “sublime to ridiculous” first page. There’s a kind of Biblical invocation, in which all of creation is sung into existence, before the narrator tells us chattily “There are other things you can do with songs. They do not only make worlds or recreate existence. Fat Charlie Nancy’s father, for example, was simply using them to have what he hoped and expected would be a marvellous night out”. Of course, as well as being slightly and pleasantly confused, we are now intensely curious about both Fat Charlie Nancy and his father.
A powerful emotion
William Golding’s The Spire opens with the protagonist laughing for joy – out loud, immoderately, and in the face of his companion’s misgivings. The imagery is also startling and initially confusing – “God the Father was exploding in his face with a glory of sunlight through painted glass”. We read on, gathering up the hints as the author drops them, desperate to know why a Dean in his cathedral just before Matins can’t help laughing uproariously with excitement. So it’s not just the expressed emotion that grabs us, but curiosity about its cause.
Tim Winton’s Breath begins with the first person narrator in an ambulance; he’s a paramedic rushing to an emergency, lights flashing and sirens blaring. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, he’s in a conflict with the young woman who’s driving, and we know we’re going to hear more about that. Grabbed. Cloudstreet is different – it’s more like The Spire, with lyricism and joyful energy sucking us in first. But the sense of imminent danger cuts in very quickly too – someone is rushing towards the river, someone who shouldn’t be. In Cloudstreet we know we won’t find out till the end what happens to this person – and that’s a lot of reading! – but the language and the characters are going to take us there.
Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman, starts with someone sneaking around trying not to get caught. We’re told that she’s accompanied by her daemon, and we quickly realise she’s a child. Yes, I want to know what she’s up to. The single word “daemon” alerts me to the fact that she’s not in my world – from the start I’m working hard to compare and contrast her world with mine, reach some comprehension of her world in time and space as I know it. She’s grabbed me.
Wuthering Heights begins with an interesting juxtaposition – a first-person narrator jauntily describing himself as a misanthrope and rejoicing that he has come to live in such a bleak, unpeopled corner of England. He immediately embroils himself in an edgy social encounter with his landlord, Heathcliff, “a man who seemed even more exaggeratedly reserved than myself”. There’s a delightful energy about Lockwood’s determination to inflict his company on Heathcliff, who so patently doesn’t want it, that we read on to see what will fall out.
Begin with dialogue
Another technique, recommended by Craig Bolland from the School of Creative Writing at QUT, is beginning with dialogue. I didn’t find an example in my random book-snatching, but I think it’s a good way to hook the reader straight into the relationship between two characters.
A writing exercise? Write the opening paragraphs of your next ten stories (hypothetically!) Each opening paragraph should aim to use a different technique for “grabbing” the reader:
1. A sneak peak of the story’s climax, which is yet to come
2. An event that occurs before the main story begins, and promises to influence the main story
3. An event that occurs after the main story ends, and promises to be meaningful once the main story has been told
4. Begin the story “starting at the very beginning”, with a strong sense that this moment will have far-reaching effects
5. Start with humour
6. Start with a strong emotion
7. Start with instant drama/trouble/conflict, through which we are introduced to the characters
8. Start with an intriguing character
9. Begin with dialogue
10. Start with something that is consciously none of the above – maybe a piece of scene-setting. How can you “grab” the reader through this opening? What can you promise her, how can you intrigue her, what can you do to make her want to keep reading?
Good luck – let me know how you get on!