How to Grab Them on Page One

It’s first page week here at TKZ, and if you’re an unpublished writer you’ve been treated to some real gold. The instruction from our band of bloggers has been a valuable workshop on the art of what I call “the big grab” – getting the reader hooked from the start.

Last week, I wrote about what not to do on your opening page. Today, I want to suggest to you an opening strategy that works for any type of fiction.

At the outset, please note that what follows is not a formula. This isn’t painting by the numbers. But it is a principle, and thus has infinite possibilities for application. No matter what your style or genre, this principle will work its magic for you, every time.

Recall that last week’s post was triggered by something an agent said at a recent conference, to wit: “If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”

I assume you do want agents — and editors — to finish your proposal. If so, you must grab them on page one. How can you do that?

By beginning your novel with a disturbance to the Lead’s ordinary world.

Why disturbance? Because: Readers read to worry. They want to be lost in the intense emotional anticipation over the plight of a character in trouble. Only when that connection is made does reader interest truly kick in.

But in their opening pages many writers fall into what I call the “Happy people in Happy Land” trap. They think that by showing the Lead character in her normal life, being happy with her family or dog or whatever, we’ll be all riled up when something bad happens to this nice person, perhaps at the end of chapter one, or beginning of chapter two.

Or they fall into the “I’m the Greatest Literary Stylist of Our Time” trap. This is where a writers desires to display brilliance via pure prose before, somewhere down the line, something like a plot kicks in.

But that’s too long to wait. You need to stir up the waters immediately.

A disturbance is something that causes ripples in the placid lagoon of Happy Land. It can be anything, so long as it presents a change or challenge to the Lead. (It’s important to note that this disturbance need not be “big” as in, say, a thriller prologue. The opening disturbance can be a jolt, however slight, that indicates to the Lead she is not having an ordinary moment here).

And you need to have that jolt on page one, preferably paragraph one.

This is true for both commercial and literary fiction, BTW. Compare the following two openings, the first a commercial example, the latter a literary one.

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

(The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain)

The world outside the window was in flames. The leaves on the pistachio trees shone fire-red and orange. Mattie studied the early morning light. She was lying on the side of the bed where her husband should have been sleeping.

(Blue Shoe by Ann Lamott)

Notice that Cain starts with a character in motion at a point in time that is obviously a disturbance to him. In this case, the disturbance is physical.

In Lamott’s example, we have two lines of description, then the Lead is introduced, and the last line is a ripple of disturbance, this one emotional: where is her husband?

Dialogue, if it indicates immediate conflict, is another way to create an opening disturbance. I’ve heard more than one agent say they like to see dialogue in the first pages. Why? Because it means you are writing a scene. Not exposition or description or backstory, but a real scene. Like this:

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”

“Is it really?”

“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.”

“Don’t! Please don’t.”

(“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway)

From these examples it’s plain to see that there are countless ways to grab readers right away through this wonderful thing called disturbance.

Now why wouldn’t you want to do that?

Perhaps you have a reason. Maybe style is what you’re after most of all. A mood. Or maybe you’re writing a grand epic, and want to “set the scene” as it were. But before you abandon the disturbance principle, look at the opening lines from a couple of “big” novels:

The boys came early to the hanging. (The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett)

The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. (Shogun, James Clavell)

I don’t know about you, but that’s enough narrative energy to propel me through the next few pages. If I get a long weather report up top, or two pages on the sunlight over Rio (no matter how beautifully rendered) I will be sorely tempted to put the book down. If you tell me how the character got to the scene, via backstory or flashback, I’m definitely moving on.

But if you indicate there’s a character here facing change or challenge, uncertainty or conflict, I’m going to want to know why. I don’t need to know the background info yet. I’ll wait for that if trouble is brewing.

John LeCarre once said, “The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”

Mr. LeCarre has it right. The opening page of a novel has to draw the reader in with an indication of trouble to come.

Do that by disturbing your characters from the very start.

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32 thoughts on “How to Grab Them on Page One

  1. The spark of inspiration ignited an explosion of ideas, which left the room untouched. Her thoughts, however, were luckier.

    Thank you for the spark.

  2. Great post about a great principle. I thought of another classic example: Pride & Prejudice. The disturbance is Mr. Bingley’s arrival.

    I think it is important to try to strike some balance though–you want it to be clear what your character’s world was like before the disturbance hit. For instance, having the character running away from a hit man might be a little much because it becomes hard to see te ordinary (for this character) through the extraordinary.

    In the examples you gave, this works well–that the husband is not next to her, where he should have been let’s us know both: what life is normally like and what has happened out of the ordinary.

    Again, great post, and a timely one because I need to rewrite my opening scene from scratch. Thanks, Jim.

  3. Jim, your advice is always spot on. I like to think of it as starting at the moment of impact–the event that jars the character out of his or her normal. I also like dialogue as a first line. It lets the reader know from the git-go that they’re reading about people. Great post.

  4. Great advice, James. I’d be curious about your take on “fake” disturbances to open a book (you know, book opens with detective in a foot chase as he closes one case before the new case has even started), or Prologue disturbances that don’t involve the Protag.

    As I’m about to start a new book, this is an area I’m very interested in at the moment.

  5. Great post. There’s that balance between opening with too much action which might have your reader going, “Who are these people and why should I care?” and the perhaps less “active” opening that will lead your reader to, “Who is this person and I’m going to read to find out.”

    Creating those opening lines might take as long as entire chapters midway through the book.

  6. Still hard to beat this opening line: The nun hit me in the mouth and said, “Get out of my house.”
    You’ve written some great opening lines, Jim. Thanks for reminding us of their importance.

  7. I agree with the fist-punching nun opening! I don’t always like the very first line to be dialogue since I don’t know or care yet about the characters, but if it’s dialogue that punchy (pun intended), then it certainly grabs me. What makes that even more gripping/funny is that the nun’s playing basketball! Love it.

  8. Martin, good point about “fake” disturbances. I don’t like them. I want there to be some connection to the book as a whole.

    A Prologue doesn’t necessarily have to involve the Lead; but it should be something that affects the Lead down the line. For example, in Midnight, Koontz knocks off a character who turns out to be the sister of one of the Leads, etc.

    As Joe put it, make the opening have “impact” for the Lead. Even if it’s just a ripple, that ripple must move outward into the greater waters of the overall story.

  9. Great post, Jim as always! I love writing beginnings. Thank you for sharing. I always enjoy reading what you and ur fellow kill zone friends have to say;) happy Easter!

  10. Hi Jim,
    You said:It can be anything, so long as it presents a change or challenge to the Lead. (It’s important to note that this disturbance need not be “big” as in, say, a thriller prologue. The opening disturbance can be a jolt, however slight, that indicates to the Lead she is not having an ordinary moment here).

    I have a very difficult time with this when I’m not writing romantic suspense(maybe even then too). I read the line you posted by Anne Lamott and I get it, but I find it really hard. Is there any trick to finding a way to make this easier?

    Happy Easter,
    Jill

  11. Jill, why don’t you try this: imagine your Lead character getting up in the morning. Her ordinary day begins. Watch it unfold as a movie in your mind. What does she do? Make coffee, check the internet, etc. Let the movie play until you reach something that gives her a jolt, something unfamiliar or troubling. Let your imagination come up with it. Write that down.

    Now, do the same thing with her at work. Watch until that jolt comes. Write that down.

    Give her a couple more scenes, and write those things down.

    You’ve now got a list of possibilities. I’ll bet one of those will be just the ticket for your page one.

  12. Your post made me muse…as an exercise, it would be fun to rewrite the first line of one’s WIP in the style and structure of some of these great first lines.

  13. Very good post, Jim. Well-put. My favorite “disruptive” opening would have to be this:

    The dark side of my mind took control on one of those slippery-hot Miami nights about a year ago, the start of my unraveling, my spin into psychosis and murder.
    –IGUANA LOVE, Vicki Hendricks

  14. Great advice Jim. It’s so easy to miss out on an opportunity to stun a reader, especially when we have the whole world of our characters in our head.

    Its kind of like trying to explain the details of a realistic dream trip to someone who, obviously, wasn’t there. Too much detail at the beginning numbs them instead of stunning them.

    Thanks again for the insightful post.

  15. Well said. I think that it’s worth noting that you stated that it is the ordinary world that it is a disturbance to. There is another disturbance that will come later to kick the lead out of his ordinary world into the messed up world of the story. I see that ordinary world as what is ordinary for the character. In a spy novel, that could be a particularly extraordinary situation.

  16. Basil, you’re most welcome.

    Timothy, you’re exactly right. This opening disturbance is not the turning point into Act 2 (what I call the “doorway of no return”). In mythic structure, that’s when the Lead gets shoved into the “dark world.”

    Good call.

  17. This advice is spot on. Unless you’re an established author, you’re not going to get out of the slush pile with a slow opening.

    I’m an editor for AKW Books and our reject pile is littered with slow openings. We just don’t have time to doctor a book with a lousy opening. Much of the time it’s a matter of cutting the first chapter and starting with the second. But do it yourself before you send it to an agent or editor.

  18. Loved this advice. My current WIP opens with the protagonist waking in the hospital after trying to slit his wrists, though he’s not suicidal. Definitely disturbed!

  19. James, you are a brilliant teacher. I shaved off more than half of my first chapter because of this advice in Revision and Self-Editing. Thank you!

  20. This is great advice! It’s tricky because you always hear how you should let people care about your MC first, but I think if you do it right you can still introduce your character through the conflict.

  21. Must it always be a disturbance with the main Character? I am bringing in a character over from a previous novel, but not in the opening scene. However, the opening scene is a disturbance to the world which will cause the lead to get involved.

  22. Great points & examples 🙂

    The first sentence or at most the first paragraph have to raise a question in the reader’s mind, what, who, why, where, how etc.

    Thank you for your article.

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