If I had a dollar for every time I’ve told a writer to not take the so-called rule to “Open with action” literally, I could probably buy a dinner for two in a very nice restaurant and have enough left over for a stay in a good hotel.
The problem of course is with the word action. The vast majority of writers, especially those new to the craft, interpret it as physical action like a street fight, or, if the genre is fantasy, a swordfight between two characters fresh to the page. Well, good luck with that: unless the writer is good enough to make us care about the outcome from the beginning—unlikely without any previous insight into the characters—the reader’s likely to just shrug and put the book down, possibly for good. I do that with at least 4 out of 5 “look insides” when picking a book on Amazon. Why? Because the author fails to give me any reason to care.
This problem is especially endemic in Fantasy books and shows. A band of riders is pursuing another pair of riders in a thunder of hooves under a lowering sky. They catch up with their quarry and, after the briefest exchange of completely opaque dialogue, hack them to bits or despatch them with a magical spell. Strangers killing strangers. Who cares? I don’t hang around to find out why, but simply close the book or turn off the show and look for something better.
What is needed of course is to open with character in action, thus giving us some understanding of the protagonist and a reason to immediately care and align with them, while at the same time raising questions which pique the reader’s interest and make them turn the page. It’s also vital to very quickly establish a setting which is vivid in the reader’s imagination.
None of this is rocket science.
The opening hook, therefore, needn’t be in-your-face drama. Anything that stirs the reader’s curiosity can work. Sometimes just a strong or unique enough narrative voice will do the trick. Take a powerful narrative voice and combine that with a couple of well-chosen question seeds, and you can craft a very compelling opening, such as the following from Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel, Isle of the Dead:
Life is a thing—if you’ll excuse a quick dab of philosophy before you know what kind of picture I’m painting—that reminds me quite a bit of the beaches around Tokyo Bay.
Now, it’s been centuries since I saw that Bay and those beaches, so I could be off quite a bit. But I’m told that it hasn’t changed much, except for the condoms, from the way that I remember it.
There follow two pages--two pages!—of descriptive reminiscence and philosophizing in which Zelazny slowly reinforces his metaphor, eventually tying it up with the narrator’s present predicament. This strategy of hijacking the reader at the get-go and taking them on a detour via two pages of descriptive matter after just two introductory paragraphs is a bold one, and it succeeds brilliantly.
Why does it work? Because in those two brief, introductory paras, Zelazny has both hit you with a first-person narrative voice as confident as any Greek tragedist, and planted a couple of hooks so powerful (a centuries-old narrator, and the sly but purposeful mention of condoms) that you’ll almost certainly stick around to hear him out.
A reader’s attention is a fragile thing in the first several pages of a story; once further into the book, by which time you’ll have hopefully convinced them that you know where you’re going and have the skills to make the trip worthwhile, the reader is less easily thrown and will cut you more slack for digression, picture-painting, windy philosophizing, and the like: but at the beginning, your job is simply to snag the reader’s attention and lead them unresisting into your world. And you don’t need physical action to do this.
At the same time, in the interest of helping the reader get oriented and smoothing their entry into the story, it helps to address all, or at least most, of what are commonly termed the “five journalistic questions”--who, what, where, how, and why—in the first scene.
In summary, then, your opening should do these things:
· Make the reader care
· Raise questions in the reader’s mind
· Begin to flesh out character
· Make the setting real and provide an anchor for the scene
· Answer the five journalistic questions (who, what, when, where, and why)
But, you might ask, how do you make a reader care for your protagonist? What qualities do they need to be likeable and relatable?
It’s a good question, and one we’ll get into in next week’s blog.