This week at the team blog I contribute to, Speculative Faith, we took a look at the first one hundred words of five unpublished manuscripts by some anonymous volunteers, with one question in mind: would you keep reading? Over fifty percent of the Spec Faith visitors who voted in the poll identified the second opening as one that would keep them reading. Over fifty percent! That means that over fifty percent of those who might pick up the book in a bookstore or read the excerpt an online would be willing to consider buying it. They’d have to if they wanted to read more, wouldn’t they?
Technically, no. They could stand there in the bookstore or take it to a comfy chair and read the rest of the chapter or they could devour the entire excerpt available on the Internet, so obviously openings aren’t going to guarantee sales. They will, however, guarantee non-sales. If readers put the book back on the shelf or click away from the excerpt after reading the first page, there’s not going to be a sale, not that day, at least.
For aspiring writers, the opening holds the same kind of importance. This is the introduction a potential agent will have to your writing. Like any other first contact, and especially a business contact, it’s important to present a favorable first impression. So what works and what doesn’t when writing a novel opening?
First, like any other writing “rules,” some successful authors will ignore these principles about openings. The real rule of writing is, does it work? Of course you, the author, may think it does, but all the readers who look at your work say it doesn’t — which is why an exercise like the one at Speculative Faith is so helpful. Those who commented took time to explain why they did or didn’t think an opening was working.
Here are some of the top reasons why an opening didn’t work:
- – confusing
– unnecessary words
– no identification with the character
– too much repetition
– backstory interrupts the action
– no urgency (importance)
– no focus
– unlikeable character
– no action
There are undoubtedly others I missed, but these are the main points that were repeated in a variety of ways. On the other hand, here’s why the commenters wanted to keep reading certain excerpts:
- – clear, tight writing
– irony (odd contrast)
– created curiosity
– a need to know (what happens next?)
– suggestion of a larger world
– promise of conflict
– interesting voice
I think these two lists give writers a good picture of what readers like in an opening. In fellow Spec Faith contributor Fred Warren’s follow-up post, “Give ‘Em The Hook,” he focused on three particular opening techniques: creating mystery, immersing the reader in the story, and orienting him to a place.
Other writing instructors stress the importance of introducing the reader to an engaging character. The idea is, if readers care about the character, they will follow him to the ends of the earth, even if he does reprehensible things they don’t want him to do.
I remember having that reaction to Frodo Baggins in The Return of the King, book three of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo accepted Gollum as their guide into Mordor, I knew it was a mistake. I wanted him to choose more wisely. In fact, I wasn’t sure if he shouldn’t turn around and take the ring to Gondor after all. None of the choices seemed good, but following Gollum seemed like suicide. But I kept reading. His questionable decision (in my view) didn’t dissuade me from reading on because I cared for Frodo and wanted to know what would come of his choice.
Of course, the event I’m referring to didn’t occur in the opening of the book, but that serves to underline the fact that making a reader care as early as possible will keep him reading … up to a point. If the promise of the opening fails, and fails again and again, it’s possible for a hooked reader to squirm off the line! 😉