When writers begin a new piece, our first instinct is that we need to fill our readers in on what went before, so they are prepared for the story that is starting now. Sometimes our first instincts are not correct—and opening with back story is not the way to invite the reader in.
We need to hook our readers first. We must compel them to read on. There are a number of ways to incite the reader forward:
● Focus on one character, and make that character specific and unique, so the reader gets curious (second example, below)
● Raise a question, a problem, a situation, or a theme that the reader needs to have answered (first example, below)
● Answer or raise, or both, some of the questions of who, what, when, where, why
● Soon after, or in the opening itself, something must occur that raises the question of how things might turn out.
Do all novels or memoirs fulfill these specific hooks? No. But there must be something in the writing to drive the reader forward, to forget that he or she is relaxing in a recliner, and that the laundry really does need folding.
Look at this example, The Invention of Solitude, by Paul Auster:
“One day, there is life. A man, for example, in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness. Everything is as it was, as it will always be. He goes from one day to the next, minding his own business, dreaming only of the life that lies before him. And then, suddenly, it happens there is death. A man lets out a little sigh, he slumps down in his chair, and it is death.”
This opening paragraph seems general, but as the reader, aren’t you convinced that soon, in just a few pages, you will find out what man has died? And why? He’s not even old! What happened?
And from Waiting to Exhale, by Terry MacMillan:
“Right now I’m supposed to be all geeked up because I’m getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party that some guy named Lionel invited me to. Sheila, my baby sister, insisted on giving me his phone number because he lives here in Denver and her simple-ass husband played basketball with him eleven years ago at the University of Washington, and since I’m still single (which is downright pitiful to her, considering I’m the oldest of four kids and the only one who has yet to say “I do”), she’s worried about me.”
MacMillan develops voice and character in this opening paragraph with “simple-ass husband” and “downright pitiful.” The reader wants to get to know this character better.
I encourage writers not to worry about the opening at beginning of writing. New writers can get stuck, writing and rewriting the first page. Often, it is not until the novel or memoir is finished that we come to understand the full arc, and where the story actually needs to start.
© Skye Blaine, 2016