Most writers know their story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that the part right before the end is called the climax. They know the climax is good. Their readers will like it. No, their readers will love it. But how do you bring your reader along to that most enjoyable moment of reading pleasure? Unfortunately, this is where most aspiring writers fall short. And by short, I mean they lose the reader’s interest before the first couple of sentences are through. In today’s world of soundbites, Tweets, and near instant gratification, grabbing the reader’s attention is hard enough. Holding it though? That sometimes feels impossible. So how does one grab the reader’s attention without the writing equivalent of dressing up like Elvis in flashy ’70s show costumes? Sure, that will garner some attention, and someone is bound to like that (not knocking you if that’s your thing), but it’s likely to turn off a lot of readers. So what’s the answer?
Perhaps it’s best to understand that good writing is a lot like good sex. How many of you would expect the desired results if you rushed headlong into things, skipping the beginning and the middle of a romantic encounter? (OK, please don’t answer that out loud). Although you may not always follow (or never have) the necessary steps, I imagine most of us have at least heard of them, even if they reside squarely in the realm of myth and legend. It’s the same with writing. The reader often needs to be brought along at just the right pace or interest (and momentum) is quickly lost, and your story only climbs to the peak of the reader’s mental slush pile. Foreplay to the rescue. Or in our case here, linguistic foreplay. But wait. Some of us can’t even get a potential partner to listen to the second half of our best pick-up line. Is this where the analogy between good writing and good sex breaks down? After all, as story tellers, we aren’t trying to draw attention to our writing hoping to pique someone’s interest like those racy magazine covers behind the plastic shields in the checkout lanes. Aren’t we, though?
Perhaps the most over-touched part of any story is the opening. And yet readers are often left dissatisfied, unable to finish the page. Or if they do finish it, they merely go through the motions of reading, doing so out of some sense of obligation to the writer, or commitment to read to a certain page before giving up. When I was younger, my limit was fifty pages. It’s much shorter now. If the story doesn’t grab me in a meaningful way, I simply won’t waste my time. Some may claim that is a bit harsh, and I’m sure I’ve missed out on my fair share of great stories because of it.
I imagine this to be every author’s fear. So along comes someone selling the plot-enhancement pill called in medias res — in the middle of things. Start your story in the middle of an epic battle, or when your protagonist is in a perilous position, they say. You wouldn’t attempt that in a romantic encounter, would you? (again, don’t answer out loud). So why would we expect that to work well in writing? Doing so might leave both your partner and your reader pumping the brakes and screaming “Too much, too fast!” On the other hand, opening a story with a giant expository dump can have similar disastrous results. Nobody likes being dumped on. It’s the Goldilocks principle here. A story’s opening has to be just right. After all, a writer only has one chance to make that all-important first impression on the reader. The penny will never be shiny again.
Practice, practice, practice
I want to pause and clarify something: in medias res can work, if done well. But unlike sex, the intent matters almost as much as the execution. What is the writer trying to do? Is the story an event story where the characters are vehicles to tell about something really incredible that happened in the world? Or is it a character story, where the events and setting are backdrop to the internal drama of the human soul? Perhaps it’s none of these — a world-building story that seeks to explore a fantastic and implausible universe? Maybe it’s a little of all three? If an event story, how does the opening garner interest in the event? If a character story, does the opening successfully draw the reader toward the character and her motives? Does the opening to a world-building story inspire awe and wonder in the first few lines?
Mine didn’t. So I began to practice (and I still do, on Twitter with @iAuthor, who posts visual writing prompts.) I find that the character count on Twitter really helps sharpen the skill of writing openings. I also do notebook exercises. Here’s an example — a writing prompt I wrote several years ago:
“Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson.”
Morbid, I know. Ignore that and let’s take a look. Not too much given away at first. The reader knows a character’s name, and that he had inadvertently killed a female (woman or girl is still unknown), and in a seemingly violent manner. I finished the exercise by writing five different openings, all different, but using the same first line:
- Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson. He’d have at least half an hour to make a better plan. Half an hour to make sure she didn’t die the next time.
- Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson. Humans were so frail and so expensive. She was the third one this week. Mother was sure to be upset. She might even revoke his cloning privileges.
- Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson. It was probably for the best, though. In her condition, she wouldn’t have survived the star jump anyway.
- Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson. Nobody would miss her though. Especially among the Dhulani. The way she’d treated them…no Daks would be seen as a hero.
- Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson. The blinding rage that had caused him to lose control cooled to a deepening regret. And fear. He burst into tears. What was he going to do now?
As you can see, some are better than others, but the point is to practice. Eventually, the elements of a good opening will fall into place naturally. I’m still hoping to attain that place of Nirvana. If we work at it, maybe we’ll see each other there, and we will have brought along a reader or two.
Next in the series: Foreplay (Part 2)