Recently I had shown my students several different ways to begin an essay. Instead of staring dumbfounded at a blank page (that is, if you’ve been blocked from echeat.com), I presented them with a few different starting techniques, such as posing a question, telling a story or exposing a fault in logic to name a few. Later on it led me to ponder what’s really the best way to launch a book? I’ve tried several techniques, but is there one sure-fire way?
After you’re writing for awhile you begin to settle into a few characteristic ways of doing things. Eventually they’ll be known as your “style.” Whether it’s a turn of phrase, a sense of irony, a humorous bent or any number of things indicative of your method of storytelling, your readers will recognize it and hopefully love it enough to come back to your work over and over. One of the most important indications of your style will be your opening, perhaps even your very first line. Depending on the genre, the opening is often approached in various ways, but I’m of the firm belief it should grab your readers from nearly the first line.
I once heard a comment from a genre writer that literary fiction is usually depressing. Not that l believe this is true–I don’t–but one of its characteristics is a more variegated writing style that often takes longer to open. Many times the introduction is an unfolding, an intricate depiction of a landscape, situation or character. It could be more obtuse than easily recognizable, its meaning shaded by metaphor or symbolism. Often there’s an unreliable narrator or the characters appear doomed from the onset. The overall pace can be slower as there’s a lot more emphasis on the way something’s said, rather than on the speedy advancement of the plot. In fact, often there is no resolution, the story left open-ended so we could draw our own conclusion.
Not so much in genre writing. The lovers find their happily-ever-after, the mystery is solved, the planet is saved from destruction (actually, I don’t really know what happens in scifi; I’m just applying a happy ending with an intergalactic bent). And all this is initiated at a faster pace. Readers want the lovers to meet, the victim to die, and the alternate universe to appear as soon as possible. So how’s this accomplished? Why not try to–
Start in the middle – Forget the backstory and jump right into a situation already in progress. The cat’s up the tree, the car’s hit a pole, the cad’s been caught with the hussy–it’s all in your face and your protagonist hasn’t a clue how to deal with it. Dump them into a situation that’ll be hell to fix while sprinkling in backstory as the plot progresses. Think breadcrumbs along a trail.
Eavesdrop – Someone’s arguing or confessing or dishing over drinks, and there you are, a fly on the wall, privy to a candid conversation. Drop in a minimum of milieu and let your characters tell your readers what’s going on through their dialogue. Watch being overly explicit about what you say, though. Too much detail and your casual conversation can come off as an information dump. Divulge on a need-to-know basis.
Begin with the ending – One of the best examples of this technique is the 1950 movie classic by director Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden. The movie opens with Holden’s body floating face-down in a Beverly Hills mansion’s swimming pool, and in his own voice he tells you how he got there. It’s really not as anti-climatic as it seems as you’re dying (sorry) to know how he got that way. And if you apply this to writing a book, hey! they’ll be no angsting over how to end it.
That’s a just a few ways, and I’m sure there’s many more, but one thing’s for certain. If you don’t give your readers something to grab onto, they’ll be nothing to keep them turning the pages. The sooner you get them hooked, the easier it’ll be to pull them into the story and all the way through to the end.