A newbie author interested in knowing how to begin his new book made the mistake of asking for advice online. As usual, some of the answers were anything but inspiring. Here's how I replied.
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You should start your book with a BANG! That doesn't necessarily mean you must start with your main character at the peak of his crisis, as some genius has suggested. In fact, that may turn into one of the weakest, most predictable formulaic openings you could craft. In fact, some of the most successful novels ever written don't introduce the main character or the primary action at all until later in the book. Want a few examples? I'm happy to oblige.
In the book The Mynah's Call, author Paula Favage begins the story with someone who kills herself before the real action begins. That, in turn, acts as a catalyst for what becomes the book's devastatingly delicious plot in a story that spans the globe from the United States to Afghanistan and back.
It's an unusual treatment, producing an introductory chapter of a scant five pages in length. But, Favage's opening gambit pays off. The reader is hooked from page one. By the time the real story begins, he or she can't wait to find out how the author is going to top that opening. Surprise! She really does. Her opening is a genius ploy because it works. It does exactly what the author wanted it to do.
In one of my novels, The Last Wild Orchid, a young man lands in Miami where he's scheduled to attend a symposium. Moments after he arrives, he's paged to the telephone and told to return immediately to his home in St. Lucia. Furthermore, a security guard arrives to see that Mark gets on the very next plane to the islands. When Mark asks what's going on, the guard ignores him. Tired, confused, and angry, he grudgingly does as he's told, only to emerge into an already developing story of international intrigue, drug running, and murder.
Game, set, match.
The reader is hooked. The net is cast. One reviewer summed it up this way: "As an Author myself, I have never read such a book that takes me to another world, has me thinking of the story and makes my heart beat so loudly, I can hear it pounding."
Now, that's the kind of reaction you want to pull from your readers.
And, catchy openings need not be confined to fiction. I work hard at developing a grabby opening for my nonfiction books, too, whether they're biographies, histories, or how-to guides. In my bio of the first woman Principle Chief in modern Cherokee history, I began the introduction to Wilma Mankiller not by citing one of a long list of accomplishments achieved over her dynamic career but, rather, by laying the framework to entice the reader:
"It is 1956. From Section C, Row 14, Seat 1 of the Colony Theater on the south side of Chicago, a young boy watches great men wearing white hats defeat less-than-great men wearing war paint and feathers.
"The cowboys of the Old West, the real West, the one that Hollywood gave us before most of us even knew there was an Old West (Hollywood rarely exaggerates or obfuscates or otherwise paints an unrealistic portrait of life, remember), those very same cowboys always win in the end. That's because they stand for Truth and Justice and the American Way of Life, and they always win in the end.
"They are America's heroes.
"Luckily for Americans everywhere, their archenemies and nemeses throughout history have been easy enough to pick out: they are dark of skin and wear a lot of ultra-suede. They race through trees while carrying ponderous primitive weapons that never once snag on a bush or shrub. They eat raw meat and plunder, rape, and pillage those who are different than they. They live in tents and dance around in frenetic circles, half-crazed beneath the silvery light of the moon, and they always lose in the end. They stand for savagery and brutality and unbridled ignorance, and they always lose in the end.
"They are America's villains."
It worked. Reviewers gave the book five stars across the board.
But, how did I come up with my opening "hooks"? The same way, I suspect, that Ms. Favage came up with hers. You do it by asking yourself what's the most extraordinary thing you can think of happening right then and there. If you have a fertile mind (and most people do, although few of us bother to develop or foster them), that shouldn't take long. Then, the only problem you have to face is how to translate that extraordinary event into words without lessening the drama or diminishing the tension.
It ain't easy, but it's worth every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears you'll invest.
Someone once said, "Of all the pages of an eighty-thousand-word novel, the most important are the first two." That's true of any book. If you can catch the reader's eye and capture his imagination in the first four or five hundred words, you're going to make a fan of him for the rest of his life.
Just my two cents' worth. Hope they help you craft that dynamite opening for your book. And, as you do, remember to stop once in a while to smell the roses, and ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.