Back when Melville started his epic novel, Moby Dick, with "Call me Ishmael," his readers knew they were in for a ride. Most would have been familiar with the implications of such a name. Ishmael was an outcast, second rate, a bit of an embarrassment, and he was the chosen narrator. The reader was hooked.
How do you decide which book to read? I read the first sentence. If that tickles my imagination, I continue on through the first paragraph, and I may read through the first couple pages. That's when the smokin' credit card comes out.
It turns out that most people choose novels this way. That makes beginnings crucial. Beginnings must sell the story within the first sentence, a paragraph, or scene--first to an agent or editor and then to a reader.
Enter a whole book on writing the irresistible opening scene, Hooked by Les Edgerton, who identifies ten core components of an effective opening: (1) the inciting incident; (2) the story-worthy problem; (3) the initial surface problem; (4) the setup; (5) backstory; (6) a stellar opening sentence; (7) language; (8) character; (9) setting; and (10) foreshadowing. Edgerton claims the first four are the most important with the others vary by degree, depending on the story.
Egads! That's quite a balancing act!
Knowing the components of a strong beginning is one thing, constructing them artfully and effectively is another. So what gold nugget can I extract from Hooked for you today?
Beyond the components mentioned, Edgerton reveals the true need for a hook-through-the-lip beginning: Novel readers are following the same trend as the rest of society. Groan. Their attention spans have shrunk. It's up to the writer to jump into the story in such a way that the reader feels the story's current and surrenders to the ride. I'm not necessarily talking about Class V rapids, but the writer must respect the reader's intelligence, their ability to catch up to the characters and the story without tons of backstory. And by the way, no fair leaving your reader confused either. It's all a delicate dance, to be sure.
For our discussion today: Readers, what makes you commit to a novel? Writers, what components of a strong beginning shall we open for discussion and questions? Anyone, toss the title of a novel with a strong beginning out for us to snatch up.
Pardon me this indulgence. This is one of my favorite openings from The Things We Keep by Elizabeth Berg:
Outside the airplane window the clouds are thick and rippled, unbroken as acres of land. They are suffused with peach-colored, early morning sun, gilded at the edges. Across the aisle, a man is taking a picture of them. Even the pilot couldn't keep still--"Folks," he just said, "we've got quite a sunrise out there. Might want to have a look." I like it when pilots make such comments. It lets me know they're awake.
Whenever I see a sight like these clouds, I think maybe everyone is wrong; maybe you can walk on air. Maybe we should just try. Everything could have changed without our noticing. Laws of physics, I mean. Why not? I want it to be true that such miracles occur. I want to stop the plane, put the kickstand down, and have us all file out there, shrugging airline claustrophobia off our shoulders. I want us to be able to breathe easily this high up, to walk on clouds as if we were angels, to point out our houses to each other way, way, way down there; and there; and there. How proud we would suddenly feel about where we live, how tender toward everything that's ours--our Mixmasters, resting on kitchen counters; our children, wearing the socks we bought them and going about children's business; our mail lying on our desks; our gardens, tilled and expectant. It seems to me it would just come with the perspective, this rich appreciation.
I lean my forehead against the glass, sigh. I am forty-seven years old and these longings come to me with the same seriousness and frequency that they did when I was a child.
Shall we keep reading?