Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (Hooking your reader), part of Writing: The Craft of Story.
Imagine you pick up a new novel, turn to the first page, and this is what you read: (male speaker: The day dawned clear and bright, the sun was shining, and the sky was a vivid blue. Tommy awoke and lay still for a moment. Morning was his favorite time of day, and he liked to savor it. At last, he got up and went to the window and pulled the shade. He saw kids walking to school with their big sneakers and their heavy backpacks. He saw a few energized souls riding their bikes to work, their messenger bags slung across their backs.
Remembering the presentation he was scheduled to give at the morning meeting, he yawned, turned from the window, and started dressing for work.) It's not a terribly engaging story. Let's see if we can figure out why by asking whether this paragraph answers the three questions readers will have. Whose story is it? Tommy's, so far so good, but is it a story yet? What's happening? Tommy's getting up and going about his day, pretty much like we all do, which brings us to the key question, what's at stake? Absolutely nothing, there's nothing out of the ordinary here.
We have no idea what the story will be about, which means there's nothing for readers to anticipate and nothing for them to read forward to find out. No curiosity, no rush of dopamine, no reader. Let's see if we can make Tommy's story and his day just a wee bit more intriguing. (male speaker: On Tuesday Tommy woke up knowing that by noon his fate would be decided. He was either going to convince Anne that he was worth hiring as a junior graphic designer or he was going to have to move back to his parents' house in Bethesda and become just another graduate who couldn't get a job.
He was sure that the presentation he prepared was slick. He'd shot a video, designed an animated logo, recorded music, but as he put on his best suit and tie--okay, it was his only suit and tie-- the image of his childhood bedroom crept into his mind. His baseball card collection and dusty shoeboxes under his bed, the poster of Radiohead on the wall, the old electric guitar still in its stand, and his little sister standing in the doorway telling him he was a loser. That bedroom was a graveyard of dead dreams.
If he had to go back now, how would he ever get out?) Now let's see what we have. Whose story is it? Still Tommy's. What's happening? Tommy is about to make the presentation of his young life, something that clearly means a lot to him. What's at stake? His job, his home, and most importantly, his sense of self. So is this the beginning of the story? You bet. In this version we not only have a sense of who Tommy is, but of the problem he's facing and what it means to him.
As important, we're beginning to care about Tommy, at least enough to read on to find out what happens when Anne sees his presentation. A presentation we can't help suspecting might not be quite as successful as he hopes it will be. This opening paragraph has done its job. It's given us a glimpse of what the overarching story will be about, and it stands a good chance of piquing the reader's curiosity.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots