The opening of a story should sweep the reader into the story like a tidal wave. It doesn’t need to be wild action. It just needs to compel the reader to want to know more. This is accomplished by engaging the reader with “intrigue”. In his article “Three Ways to Keep Your Readers Hooked” in the April 2001 issue of Writer’s Digest, Joe Cardillo suggested that the three elements of hooking a reader resemble the steps he uses to train his Samoyed puppy: 1) arouse interest; 2) delay, then 3) reward.
The writer arouses interest in the reader by providing enough detail to get the reader to ask questions. Now they want something. You tease them with the delay; that keeps them reading and turning the pages. It also gives them the chance to try to come up with the answers themselves. The reward comes in stages. Don’t answer all their questions at once. That’s what the book—the story—is for. The reward, parceled out in stages, lets the reader know that you can deliver and will ultimately provide them with a fulfilling story at the end. The beginning of your book sets up a covenant between you and the reader, a covenant for a journey you will take together toward resolution.
There is no beginning without an end. In her book The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit (Revised Edition, Perigee Trade, 2002) Elizabeth Lyon suggested that the beginning of a novel should “reflect the entire book. There should be a tie-in [between] the beginning and the end”. This is sometimes called “framing” a story, where the principal thematic problem is given in the beginning and then resolved in the end. In his book, A Story is a Promise (Blue Heron Publishing, 2000) Bill Johnson describes it as a promise to the reader.
“Dramatic story-issues revolve around issues of human need,” says Johnson. “The need to be loved. To have control of one’s fate. To feel a sense of purpose. To be able to overcome obstacles. To be able to grow and heal from life’s wounds. To understand and make sense of the events of life.” He warns that “if you can’t name the issue at the heart of your story [the theme], it risks being unclear to your audience.” And this needs to be identified, at least intuitively for the reader, at the beginning of the story. You do this through intrigue in the beginning and pointing out through scene what is at stake or at issue in your story.
Additional things to consider in openings include:
• Avoid starting your story at “the beginning”: instead, start mid-way, when something is already happening—preferably to someone important in your story and at the pivotal point when you provide the “story promise” pertinent to the theme.
• Quell the urge to put in a lot of information about setting, character and situation: get things in motion first, then reveal here and there. Let the details unfold with the story like a flowing piece of artwork.
• Trust your reader: novice writers have not yet gained the confidence to trust that they won’t lose the reader in the beginning if they don’t tell them everything right away. The key is to choose just enough to whet their appetite for more. And, yes, it is critical what you choose. What you choose should relate to your story’s theme and its story promise: the problem.
A great opening is a seductive tease, deliciously delivered; it promises an exotic ride that only you can fulfill.
Cardillo, Joe. 2001. “Three Ways to Keep Your Readers Hooked”. Writer’s Digest, April, 2001, volume 81, no. 4.
Johnson, Bill. 2000. A Story Is a Promise. Blue Heron Publishing. Portland, Oregon. 187pp.
Lyon, Elizabeth. 2002. The Sell Your Novel Took Kit. Revised Edition. Perigee Trade. 320pp.
Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Chapter B) Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 264pp.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.