The screenwriter and director Elia Kazan once said he had 7 seconds to hook his audience. What’s more, focus groups showed that if the beginning failed to captivate, his audience experienced the entire film as a bit of dud, regardless of how stellar its middle and ending.
You probably have even less time to capture your reader.
And here’s the thing. That first impression is immediate and permanent.
The truth is, we make more decisions about your story based on your opening lines than perhaps any other part. And the first and most important question we ask is:
“Do I want to keep reading?”
A captivating beginning doesn’t happen by chance. It’s deliberately orchestrated by you, the author.
It’s up to you to create expectations, questions, anticipation.
Here are 3 story opening techniques that will arouse the reader’s curiosity and stoke the desire to know more.
1. Plunge us into an already unstable situation.
The best beginnings don’t start at the beginning. They allow us to meet characters in the midst of some kind of trouble or emotional danger.
Let’s say the crux of your story takes place at a vacation retreat in Cancun, Mexico. That’s where the conflict escalates, it’s where confrontation between the characters reaches critical mass. It’s where things are resolved for better or for worse.
Resist the temptation to roam around your first few pages in backstory – what your protagonist packed in her suitcase, details about the flight out of JFK, what she thought about during the plane ride, and so on.
You can begin your story with dialogue, description, an image, summary, a question, a memory, whatever. But it’s best to begin, as writing books say, “in medias res.”
The playwright Edward Albee once said the beginning of a piece of fiction is like the opening of a curtain on a scene that was already in progress before the curtain parted.
Consider these openings.
There is a typo on the hospital menu this morning. They mean, I think, that the pot roast tonight will be served with buttered noodles. But what it says here on my breakfast tray is that the pot roast will be severed with buttered noodles. This is not a word you want to see after flipping your car twice at sixty per and then landing side-up in a ditch.
—Amy Hempel, Going
They shoot the white girl first.
—Toni Morrison, Paradise
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
—Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Each of these stories open at a point where life as the character knows it is about to give way.
As Clark Blaise points out, when you begin at the point where everything your character knows about being in the world is about to give way, “the rest of the story will attempt to draw out the inferences of that earlier upheaval.”
2. Withhold Essential Information
A common pitfall among writers I coach is to give away too much too soon, to spoon feed the reader too much information, before we have a chance to know or care about the characters or develop an appetite for their situation.
A well crafted beginning invites us to intuit what will follow. It’s seductive. Part of what keeps us turning your pages is to see if our expectations bear out, or are thwarted in some unexpected shape.
Enticing beginnings postpone information.
Here’s the opening of Robert Cohen’s short story, “The Boys at Night.”
The baby arrived in summer. That was how we referred to her, the baby. No name, no gender, just the thing that she was, as if infancy was not a passing condition but a defining one. In her case, it was. But then we were all in need of some defining that summer. I was fourteen though I acted younger, Paulie was eleven but seemed much older, and my parents, those large, irritable people who sat across from us at dinner, were hovering warily around forty, and all the tedious complications that seemed to involve.
This retrospective narrator has contemplated what’s happened and, having experienced the events to their end, has decided to dispense information about the events slowly, in a particular order.
This beginning holds knowledge and understanding in suspension. It skirts around the edges of what’s going on, just as the characters do throughout much of the story.
What can we infer? And what questions form in our mind?
We infer that something serious is wrong with the baby.
We don’t know what that “something” is yet, but we trust that if we keep reading, we’ll find out. A side note: the narrator postpones revealing precisely what’s wrong with the baby until page 14.
We also can infer that the baby’s arrival has complicated some pre-existing family dysfunction. The narrator’s referral to his parents as “…those large irritable people who sat across from us at dinner…” suggests estrangement and hostility already existed before the curtains of the story opened. We intuit from the first paragraph that the baby is going to further complicate this trouble. And that this “something wrong” will culminate in a defining dramatic moment. We anticipate that moment. And so we keep reading to arrive at it.
The questions that lure us on are, “What’s wrong with the baby?” and “What happened?”
3. Hint at the Conflict
In the opening of his story, “Pretty Mouth Green My Eyes”, J.D. Salinger plants the seeds for the conflict and upheaval to come, creating immediate curiosity.
When the phone rang, the gray-haired man asked the girl, with quite some little deference, if she would rather for any reason he didn’t answer it. The girl heard him as if from a distance, and turned her face toward him, one eye—on the side of the light—closed tight, her open eye very, however disingenuously, large, and so blue as to appear almost violet. The gray-haired man asked her to hurry up, and she raised up on her right forearm just quickly enough so that the movement didn’t quite look perfunctory. She cleared her hair back from her forehead with her left and said, “God. I don’t know. I mean what do you think?”
Rather than ask, ‘What happened?’ we ask, ‘What is going on?’
What can we infer so far? And what questions hold us in suspense?
For one thing, we can assume the gray haired man and the girl are lovers and that their affair is taboo. We know this by the urgency in the question of whether or not to answer the phone, and their close physical proximity: …she turned her face toward him, one eye, on the side of the light—closed tight, her open eye very, large, and so blue as to appear almost violet…”
We can also infer that “the gray haired man” is much older than “the girl” because, until page 3 of the story, Salinger chooses to refer to them as ‘the gray haired man’ and ‘the girl’. And this suggests an illicit nature of its own.
But who’s on the other end of the ringing phone? Is it the girl’s husband? Her mother? Will they even answer it?
The promise of reading further is that the missing information will be parceled out in due time, and that our inferences will either be confirmed or delightfully overturned.
We also expect a confrontation at some point between the caller and the man.
That curiosity and anticipatory rush keeps us glued to the page.
Here’s an exercise to play with.
Go back to something you’re working on, a beginning you think you haven’t nailed yet. Maybe you’ve started too soon, or too late, and you’ve diffused the story’s tension and suspense. Locate that moment in your story where life as your character knows it is about to give way, or where things are already off balance, already in motion. Open the curtains and begin there.