That’s the world we live in and it is a harsh truth that every writer must both understand and accept. There was a time when you might be able to enjoy fifteen minutes of fame, but the world moves faster – fame is measured in the six second intervals that we’re allowed on Vine videos. The amazing fact is that there are people who are really good at creating six seconds of comedic genius. The sad fact is that as a new writer, most of us are ill-prepared for such a requirement. Readers may provide a little more than six seconds, but every marketer knows – each line needs to give reason for the reader to go to the next line.
It’s not a concern once you’re famous. There are best-selling authors who could publish a grocery list and people would purchase it. They have that level of credibility – fans already know they will likely enjoy the story. New and especially independent authors, have to compete for the limited attention of readers. Even a “free” book doesn’t guarantee that the “downloader” will read the story…because you have little time to impress upon them the value of flipping to the next page. Noah Lukeman nailed this issue in his book, “The First Five Pages.” That which was true when he wrote the book in 1999 is just as true today. Although Lukeman discussed grabbing the attention of publishers and agents, for independent authors that advice extends to the readers.
So perhaps you have a little more than five pages – lets say that we have at least the first chapter. The problem is that often the first chapter isn’t the strongest part of the book. It’s the place where we get settled into our story, where we find the voice and the rhythm, chapter one is where we start the seventy or eighty thousand word journey. Review your own story. If you were asked to submit the best chapter or your favorite for a contest or for a potential publishing contract, would it be chapter one? No – yeah me neither. And there in lies the trouble. As a book buyer do you use the “take a look inside” function on Amazon? Do you read a paragraph or two to see if you like it? Maybe not for a Stephen King novel, but most certainly for something that is self-published.
Writers love their secrets. They like to build up the story to the point of conflict and resolution. They sometimes marvel at their own mastery of words. I’ve seen this often in book recommendations that read – once you get through the first couple of chapters, the story is great – “Oh,” I think, “that’s really bad.” Maybe not for a well-know author, but certainly for a new author. But even well-known authors became such because they mastered the opening of their books. They hooked the reader. And they hooked the reader by using statements that created questions that the reader wanted to answer. Or in other cases, they didn’t spend too much time on the “back story” or with long descriptive text in the beginning, they got right to the action – here is an example of history’s best selling book and its opening:
There are many examples of great first chapters. Although the opening to Faulkner’s, The Sound and The Fury was painful, it made the reader wonder – what the heck is going on? – and sometimes that’s all you need to get them to the next line and then the next chapter. Take a look at these openings from some best-selling authors.
If you love your book. If you think it is a story worth reading, then you have to do that story justice in the first chapter…in the first line. One way to do that is to make the first chapter your final edit in the process. Another is to spend time on your first line before you think about any other. I’m not suggesting that I nailed this in my first book – because my favorite chapter is chapter four – which means it should have been chapter one. I did, however, give thought to my first line. I could have written it in a number of ways. I purposefully choose – On his last day as an oncologist, Dr. Russell Thorn worked his shift on the sixth floor of the Gulf Coast Memorial Hospital. I wanted the reader to notice “his last day” because their curious brain would naturally (if not subconsciously) ask “why is it his last day?”
Perhaps my first line wasn’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean yours can’t be – that’s your most important task – to find that perfection, to create that hook, to drag them into your story. It takes practice, it takes thought and it takes some research. Fellow blogger Rachael at Street of Dreams posted a great article here on the best opening lines in books. I read quotes often because they help me see the best of the short statements. I also keep a notebook of opening lines for my stories, both written and unwritten. Here are a few examples:
If Sara had know the truth about her parents she would never have gone home – From Omission of Truth
The first body was found in the spring of 1979. – From The Last Divorce
My name is Samuel Drake and this is my final testament. I doubt I will have time to complete all that I want to say. They’ve been working at the door for over an hour. – From Sam’s Journal
The first night Ashley made it all the way to the twelfth step before she heard the footsteps behind her. – From A Run up the Stairs
Bill had no reason to be bothered by the van, but lately its presence gnawed at him – From The Van
Of course the second line must be as intriguing as the first, the third as interesting as the second, and so forth and so forth, until you type the words “Chapter 2.” Regardless of your genre, something important needs to happen in chapter one – remember we live in a world of six second videos, four minute songs, 140 character statements, and 42 minute television shows. If your reader is to continue on the journey you’ve invited him or her on, then you can’t just guide them, you’ve got to give them a friendly little push. If you don’t do that in the first line and the first chapter – readers will most likely choose a different journey.
So – what’s you best opening line? How many pages do I have to read in chapter one of your book before the action starts?