by Susan DeFreitas, associate editor and writing coach
The opening of your novel has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Generally, you’ll only have a few pages to convince a prospective reader—including agents or editors—that your book is worth their while.
This year at the Willamette Writers Conference, I taught a class entitled “Hook, Line, and Sinker: How Successful Novels Hook and Hold Their Readers from the Very First Page.” It seemed an appropriate context for this class, as many authors come prepared to pitch their work to publishing pros, and many of those pitches result in a partial manuscript request that will put the opening pages of their novel to the test.
You’ll find a whole lot of books out there on the subject of novel openings. Much of the advice they offer is solid, but much of that advice is contradictory—and some of it is just plain wrong.
For instance, one well-regarded book on craft states that you must know both your “story problem” and your “character problem” before you write the opening of your novel. Another states that you should always begin with your novel’s triggering event (also known as the inciting incident).
The problem is, you’ll find all sorts of openings of successful novels—both award winners and best sellers—that don’t follow these rules. What they do, first and foremost, is stimulate the reader’s curiosity and cause her to start making predictions, even if on a completely subconscious basis.
According to Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, this sort of cognitive forecasting is a huge part of what has made Homo sapiens so successful as a species. No wonder our brains give us a nice shot of dopamine as soon as we start wondering (and predicting) what will happen next!
The good news is, there are many different ways to engage your reader’s curiosity. A unique voice might get him wondering, “Who is this? Who’s talking to me?” Humor, which is often built around unexpected conjunctions, may cause her to read on to see if she can anticipate the punch line of your next joke. Clues as to some trouble in the past might get him wondering what happened, exactly, way back when; hints concerning trouble to come might have her wondering from which quarter that trouble will arrive.
Of course, it can be hard to see your opening pages the way your reader will, simply because you know them so well. Before you send your novel out for consideration by agents or editors—or upload it for self-publishing—consider booking a consultation with an Indigo editor specializing in fiction. We’d be happy to help you make sure those first few pages will land your reader, hook, line, and sinker.
Susan DeFreitas is Indigo’s dedicated fantasy and sci-fi editor, though she enjoys reality sometimes as well. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been featured in over thirty publications and anthologies. Her passions include literary theory, neuroscience, and dreams. Follow her on Twitter: @manzanitafire.