After years of taking literature classes, I distinctly remember craving some lighter reading. I thought contemporary fiction might provide a little distraction and relief from my studies. I also hoped I might use it as a gauge to better understand the popular fiction genre.
At a weekend party, I asked the host (an avid reader) about her favorite authors. I left with a shopping bag full of bestsellers. For my first subject, I chose an author with more than a dozen successful books (and just as many blockbuster films). Wanting to unravel the reasons behind the author’s popularity, I read the prologue and the first chapter.
I never made it past the first chapter.
Although I appreciate the author’s slow, meandering, style, I found myself criticizing the sentences, criticizing the content. After several pages describing a small southern town with more than its share of Baptist churches, everything read like a cliché.
Have you ever felt like you’ve read the same story a thousand times, like the characters were interchangeable? I imagined Southern hospitality cloaking bigotry and small mindedness. I imagined a key character dying at the end.
So, I sat for a while imagining alternate beginnings, exciting scenes that might help me care about this town with its abundance of churches and nondescript characters. As a writer, a teacher, a researcher, I craved solutions. I wanted to arm myself with strategies, with tools I could develop for my students in the classroom, with ideas I could apply to my own work.
I thought about the critical role of beginnings, about opening paragraphs that might make or break new writers–especially beginning writers without an established author’s notoriety and readership. As I typed notes and ideas into a document on my laptop, I thought long and hard about the problems with the novel’s opening:
- What bothered me about the opening sequence?
- What elements were missing?
- Why couldn’t I make a connection with the text?
I found the opening formulaic, predictable, lacking surprise, conflict, or depth.
In short, the author failed to make a strong impression.
I thought about my favorite openings, about stories offering strong first impressions.
William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway understood the importance of first impressions:
- Shakespeare’s Macbeth opens with thunder and lightning, a trio of witches prophesying war.
- Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying opens with a mother struggling to breathe, her son building her coffin within earshot, sawing boards outside the window of their home.
- Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls begins with a soldier surveying a bridge his commanding officer just ordered him to blow up.
Themes like supernatural figures, death, and war invite excitement and attention, enticing readers to continue, to commit to the story, to commit to the dark realities waiting beyond the opening pages.
To readers, an opening paragraph makes a promise: to thrill, intrigue, or captivate. A strong opening can launch or stall a relationship with the text. Reading requires time and focus, a sizable investment in the author. If the opening fails to deliver, the reader may discard the text altogether to explore options with greater potential.
In other words, readers are ruthless:
- They won’t wait around for you to get to the point.
- They won’t expend the extra energy required to develop relationships with the characters.
- They won’t care that you spent three years developing a deeply personal story.
- They want everything, and they want it now.
Even if the author manages to get the reader past the opening pages, a yes isn’t guaranteed. The opening action, dialogue, or narration must hook the reader; otherwise, commitment never occurs.
So, how do we solve the problem of weak openings?
SAAS: Surprise, Authority, Action, and Suspense
Using SAAS, you can hook your reader from the first page.
Let’s take a closer look:
Great story openings surprise readers with unique perspectives. They make original, compelling connections between disparate ideas. Surprise demonstrates confidence in a writer’s ability to connect the dots at a later time.Surprise demonstrates confidence in a writer's ability to connect the dots at a later time. Click To Tweet
Surprises offer shock value, forcing the reader to pay attention, to absorb and assemble details in order to unravel the mystery.
Consider these surprising opening lines:
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina).
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” (J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye).
“They shoot the white girl first” (Toni Morrison, Paradise).
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York” (Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar).
These opening lines grab attention; they’re bold, unique, and direct.
What might your narrator or protagonist say first to garner attention?
Before a reader decides to care about the characters, about the plot’s twists and turns, the opening must demonstrate authority.Before a reader decides to care about the characters, about the plot’s twists and turns, the opening must demonstrate authority. Click To Tweet
The author must first earn a reader’s confidence, respect, and trust, so the opening can’t meander or linger too long on insignificant details. The opening must demonstrate style and perspective, a unique rhythm or flow. The author can’t afford ambiguity, a weak command of language, or glaring grammatical errors. Dialogue must be accurate, believable. Language must be consistent and appropriate for the characters and setting.
Consider this opening passage from Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens:
“The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog. The palmetto patches stood unusually quiet except for the low, slow flap of the heron’s wings lifting from the lagoon. And then, Kya, only six at the time, heard the screen door slap.”
This sequence artfully combines setting and action, arousing attention and curiosity. The opening two sentences relax and engage the reader. The third sentence interrupts the quiet rhythm with the “slap” of the scream door. Like a slap on the face, the reader pays attention, much like the character Kya, now engaged in decoding the meaning behind her mother’s abrupt exit:
“Usually, with the confidence of a pup, Kya knew her mother would return with meat wrapped in greasy brown paper or with a chicken, head dangling down. But she never wore the gator heels, never took a case.”
By the end of the first page, the reader sees what Kya sees, understands what Kya understands, and struggles with the same questions:
Why had Kya’s mother left without a word?
- Where was she going?
- Why was she dressed up, carrying her blue train case?
- Would she return?
The first page leaves a strong impression, connecting the setting with action, connecting the reader with the primary character.
If you want to grab your reader’s attention, get to the action as quickly as possible.
Instead of a long exposition where you describe the setting in great detail, get the characters moving, doing, interacting with each other, interacting with the environment. Action establishes conflict and contrast–details that make readers pay attention. In real life, we get to know people through their actions; their words are weak in comparison.
Action allows you to “show, not tell.”
In medias res, perhaps the most successful technique, involves beginning in the middle of the action. Shakespeare used it extensively.
Contemporary writers use it to great effect. Dan Brown used it artfully in the opening murder scene in The Da Vinci Code, describing a blood-drawn pentagram on a victim’s chest.
Blockbuster movies use the technique because it works.
Whether you’re a fan of Dan Brown, Lee Child, or Stephen Hunter, action commands attention, allowing the author to prove himself.
Suspense hooks readers.
Like action and surprise, leaving out details grabs attention, compelling readers to continue with a text. Human nature makes us want to be in on the secret. We can’t bear being an outsider to essential information.
Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin begins with great suspense:
“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign.”
Immediately, the reader finds out that Laura was driving her sister Iris’s car, that there would be an investigation.
The reader struggles with innumerable questions:
- Was it suicide?
- Did someone tamper with the brakes?
- Was it an accident?
- What was Laura’s state of mind when she drove off the bridge?
- What does the end of the war have to do with Laura’s actions?
The reader is now curious, hooked on the mystery.
Only further reading will reveal the truth.
As writers, we can suggest or hint at possible truths.
Whether these suggestions prove true or false doesn’t matter. Consider the success of supermarket tabloids. Suggestion without confirmation is powerful. Leading the reader with a slow drip of facts creates tension and curiosity.
For writers struggling with openings, try offering specific details.
For example, instead of starting with the ubiquitous setting description, zero in on a specific element of the scene: the weathered oak door with peeling red paint; the cold, steel, oversized knob in your protagonist’s hand; the pocked, gray granite stoop beneath her feet. Allow the setting to speak, to create tension.
By providing concrete images, you’re grounding your writing in reality, giving your scene life and greater potential. This also helps the reader visualize what you’re describing, which can be especially helpful when tackling complex or abstract subjects. Additionally, concrete details add texture and flavor to help your reader engage and commit.
For many writers, the pressure to craft a strong opening causes anxiety, making progress impossible. Try writing out of sequence to alleviate pressure. Focus on parts that are clear, obvious, and workable; give yourself room to circle back and polish the opening.
I think openings are best written last, after the draft of the story. By that time in the process, you’ll know where everything goes, what works, and what doesn’t. You’ll also have the freedom to test alternate routes. Openings written first can bind an author to a premise that may not survive the editing phase.
Key Takeaways for Crafting Stronger Beginnings:
- Start with a strong premise, but be willing to bend as needed.
- Get to the action immediately.
- Establish yourself as bold, capable, and trustworthy.
- Write clearly and simply.
- Make a strong first impression; you may not get another chance.
What do you think?
What’s your formula for writing a strong opening chapter?
Share your thoughts below.
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