How do you start your stories? Do you hook the reader from the opening lines or leave them wondering why they should read on?
If you’ve ever picked up a book in a shop or library (you do use libraries, right?) and started reading the first few lines and then bought – or borrowed – the book because you want to know what happens, you’ll have seen the secret already. The author has set a scene that leaves you wanting to know more.
You need to give the reader a mystery, or a question, or a situation that they want to know more about. They either want the answer to the question, to see how the mystery is solved, or to know why you put them in that particular situation in the first place.
Compare the following two phrases and see which one ‘pulls’ you into the story and makes you want to know more.
The house was old and decaying. Ivy climbed the walls and covered the old windows and half the roof. The front door was rotting and patches of faded paint showed here and there. I wondered what it was like on the inside. It was a bit of a mystery to me.
When Joe first saw the house again it sat brooding in the fading light of evening, desolate and alone. The remnants of the front door bore the scars of a night long ago that changed his family’s life. Now that he stood on the threshold a rising tide of memory came flooding back and he hesitated, breathing deeply, before pushing on the rotten planks and stepping inside. Life was about to change again for Joe.
In the first example I haven’t given you much to go on. The description is bland and uninspiring and there is no reason for you to want to know more.
The second example gives you a name (you know who this is – your protagonist), a past event (as yet unknown) that changed his family’s life and has affected him as well, and we now know that other stuff is about to happen. The passage also starts to give life to the house – it’s not just any old house. You would hope the reader now wants to know more.
We now have four questions your reader will want to know the answers to (five if you’re asking yourself who Joe is):
- What happened at that house to change a family’s life?
- What effect did it have on the family?
- Why has Joe come back?
- What is going to happen next?
Take a look at something you’ve written and ask yourself, ‘Why would the reader want to read on?’ There needs to be a reason. Compare your opening lines with a story you’ve read, one that pulled you in from the first lines, and study the structure of the first paragraphs.
Sometimes it’s worth rereading a good book to study the structure and plot development (the first time round you’ll just want to enjoy the story).