The 1st page, the 1st paragraph, the 1st words can determine whether the author hooks a reader to share the storytelling journey, or if the book gets returned to the shelf for another author. There is so much competition for a reader’s attention, whether on first entering a bookstore or viewing the first page of a virtual store.
John Jakes, a prolific writer, said that in the 1st page of a story, the author should introduce a main character, the setting, and a conflict. These are the key elements for engaging a reader towards investing time in a good story. Let’s look at the opening of one of his classic novels, North and South:
“THE LAD SHOULD TAKE my name,” Windom said after supper. “It’s long past time.”
It was a sore point with him, one he usually raised when he’d been drinking. By the small fire, the boy’s mother closed the Bible on her knees.
Bess Windom had been reading to herself as she did every evening. From watching her lips move, the boy could observe her slow progress. When Windom blurted his remark, Bess had been savoring her favorite verse in the fifth chapter of Matthew: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The boy, Joseph Moffat, sat with his back against a corner of the chimney, whittling a little boat. He was twelve, with his mother’s stocky build, broad shoulders, light brown hair, and eyes so pale blue they seemed colorless sometimes.”[i]
The opening words are infused with tension, coming from a very flawed character. His wife’s non-verbal reaction messages that the demand is not well received, and a sore topic. The pages that follow portrays an abusive family, from which Joseph Moffat dreams of escaping, yet held back with the helpless desire to protect his mother from an alcoholic step-dad. In the end, the boy gains his freedom, but at a high cost. And that’s just the prologue.
Engaging openings draw the reader into the story. You feel connected to a character and their immediate situation, such as Joseph Moffat. The initial conflict might not be THE conflict, but there’s enough tension to promise more if the reader continues to turn pages. Other times, the opening scene may be an accident in slow motion—metaphorically. The reader might not identify with the characters just yet, but the situation is something we cannot look away from, no matter how uncomfortable one might become. Ernest Hemingway masterfully creates such a scene in the first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea. Here’s just the first half of the 1st paragraph:
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.”[ii]
Here’s a man so down on his luck that he’s lost credibility in his profession. Hemingway, following the same concept as John Jakes, introduces the Old Man, the title character, the setting, and THE conflict of the story in the first couple of paragraphs. Life is so hard for the old man that the boy–his former apprentice who is now learning from another–buys him a beer. With tight writing, which is a topic for a different article, Hemingway draws in the reader to view someone worse off than themselves. The old man’s stoic kindness and the boy’s devotion to him keeps us reading, and wondering, “things have got to get better, right?” Yet the rest of the story takes us deeper into experiencing the old man’s sacrifices, struggles, and loss that becomes a form of victory and vindication. But the key is the opening lines about a slow motion car wreck that we just can’t stop watching with the opening page.
Another approach is to open a story in the middle of the action. This entry has the advantage of immersing the reader into the chaos of an immediate conflict. Thrown into the deep waters of action, most often violence, the intent is to build instant momentum. Matthew Reilly is a master of this style. I credit him with establishing the genre of high octane storytelling, where there are no pauses where a character can become introspective, or an author can philosophize. The story is go, Go, GO! Conflict IS the story. One example comes from Scarecrow Returns:
“THE PLANE hurtled down the airstrip, chased by furious machine-gun fire, before it lifted off with a stomach-lurching swoop and soared out over the vast expanse of Arctic sea ice that stretched away to the north.
The plane’s pilot, a 60-year-old scientist named Dr. Vasily Ivanov, knew he wouldn’t get far. As he’d lifted off, he’d seen two Strela-1 anti-aircraft vehicles—amphibious jeep-like vehicles that were each mounted with four 9M31 surface-to-air missiles—speeding down the runway behind him, about to take up firing positions.
He had perhaps thirty seconds before they blasted him out of the sky.”[iii]
While the reader is drawn into the conflict, Reilly follows the theme of introducing a main character,[iv] providing scene context, and a conflict—death is 30 seconds away. The reader needs the three elements to anchor themselves within the chaos. We identify with his desire to escape, and wonder at his fatalistic belief—remember the slow motion car crash strategy. The conflict is intense—machine-gun fire, plane pulling Gs on take-off, and surface-to-air missiles moving into range. If this is the opening, how will the rest of the story continue to climb? Reilly meets this challenge, where other writers fail. They lead with an explosion, and then leave the reader coughing through the smoke of the rest of the story. Few will take that journey.
Good non-fiction starts with a strong opening. Authors, like Chip and Dan Heath, use their opening to illustrate the focus of the book. The focus would be similar to the plot. Here’s the opening to their major book, Switch. What do you think their focus is about?:
“One Saturday in 2000, some unsuspecting moviegoers showed up at a suburban theater in Chicago to catch a 1:05 p.m. matinee of Mel Gibson’s action flick Payback. They were handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn and were asked to stick around after the movie to answer a few questions about the concession stand. These movie fans were unwitting participants in a study of irrational eating behavior. There was something unusual about the popcorn they received.
It was wretched. In fact, it had been carefully engineered to be wretched. It had been popped five days earlier and was so stale that it squeaked when you ate it. One moviegoer later compared it to Styrofoam packing peanuts, and two others, forgetting that they’d received the popcorn for free, demanded their money back.”[v]
The Heath brothers open with a social experiment that draws in readers with a story about a scene that most of us have experienced—eating popcorn at a movie theater. They turn the experience on it’s head by offering free popcorn that’s “wretched” in various sizes. Regardless if the study participants got a medium, large, or extra large tub, of the 5 day old popcorn, they ate all of it. From there the book lays out an elaborate argument about the difficulty for people to change, and how to go about succeeding in changing mindsets. What’s important here is that the opening paragraphs suck in readers, who before they realize it, are 3-4 chapters into a book about complex ideas—and they’re invested.
Characters, scene, conflict: starting with the 1st words, all three elements are present in the first paragraph, of the first page of most books that succeed in drawing in readers. Now once you have them, the next challenge is keeping them. How that works is another tale to be told. But as readers, you already know what those might be…
[i] Jakes, John (2013-05-21). The North and South Trilogy: North and South, Love and War, and Heaven and Hell (Kindle Locations 204-211). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Hemingway, Ernest (2002-07-25). The Old Man and the Sea (p. 3). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Reilly, Matthew (2012-01-03). Scarecrow Returns (Kindle Locations 256-262). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Actually, Dr. Vasily Ivanov dies five pages later. He’s not the main character of the story. That would be Scarecrow. But Dr. Vasily is the key character of the prologue. All of the elements that John Jakes discussed are present to draw and satisfy readers.
[v] Heath, Chip; Heath, Dan (2010-02-10). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (p. 1). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.