- A true-crime book about multiple grisly murders and the birth of the FBI that begins with descriptions of wildflowers.
- A commercial thriller that opens with immediate action and tension, featuring a woman spying on her neighbor, in the middle of a tawdry act.
- A literary novel full of unlikable characters in which we discover, on the very first page, that the depressed protagonist has decided to go into a drugged hibernation for an entire year.
What do these three successful, apparently dissimilar three books*—pitched to different audiences, presumably with different tastes and attention spans—all have in common?
They all get off to a fast start, hooking the reader with an arresting image, moment or premise. But that’s not all.
In fact, if we think about the goal of writing as simply hooking—even tricking—the reader with a clever line or a frantic or bizarre opening, we’ve missed the point. (And we have no guidance on how to write anything but first flashy sentences, paragraphs and scenes.)
Yes, we want to be interested quickly. We want to be flirted with, on the page.
But we want more than that first seductive moment. We also want a steadier, progressive courtship and finally, a commitment.
The metaphor is a stretch, as most of our craft-related metaphors are, but let’s keep going with this.
One: the reader wants to experience pleasure in the form of amusement, adrenaline, beauty, a flash of insight, something.
Two: the reader also wants—needs—to be grounded. In addition to those first and hopefully continuing pleasures, he wants to understand what this book and its characters are about. Here is where many of us fail as writers, thinking that the absence of essential information will create intrigue or suspense, when usually, it only generates puzzlement.
Three: the reader wants to enter into a longer contract with the writer. To do so, he or she really needs to know what’s on the table. Is this a page turner, and if so, it is clever and classy or merely trite? Is it experimental? Are there disturbing or credibility-straining elements? Does the reading require work? Anything is possible in a book, but the reader wants and needs to know what she is signing up for. Get her to sign early, and she will suspend disbelief and meet the writer halfway, perhaps even forgiving some problems with items one (pleasure) or two (grounding), above. Delay her understanding of what the book demands, and she will be disappointed.
In my upcoming workshop called “Beyond Hooked” (Juneau, Tues. October 16, 6-9 pm, and Anchorage, Sat. October 20, 1-4 pm, click for more details and registration), we’ll analyze recent book openings in order to learn what makes them work. Participants also have the option of submitting short openings (story, novel, memoir or narrative nonfiction, 500 words maximum) for group sharing and gentle critique in the last hour.
Join us, but even if you don’t, I encourage you to do this exercise from the comfort of your own home.
Think about a book you’ve loved recently. Take a look at the first one to five pages again. What first sparkling elements—as small as a perfect word, phrase or sentence—gave you that zing that made you want to snuggle up, forget about the dishes and keep reading? Moving along and enlarging our scope to multiple sentences and ongoing paragraphs, what did you need to know to feel grounded in the story, its characters and overall premise? Enlarging scope again, to the first one, two, three pages or more, when (and why) did you feel ready to commit for the long-haul, sure that you were in good hands and even willing to go outside your comfort zones?
P.S.: The books alluded to above, if you’re curious:
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
A Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Andromeda Romano-Lax’s newest book is called PLUM RAINS, a sci-fi/historical fiction novel set in 1930s Taiwan and 2029 Tokyo. She is coming to Alaska October 15-21 for a series of events and readings. Her website is www.romanolax.com.