The Opening as Part of the Closing … of the Deal

by James Scott Bell

It’s no secret we live in the age of the declining attention span.

How ’bout those Dodgers?

Where was I? Oh yes, attention spans. Declining.

We all know the causes. Phones, tablets, the infinite galaxy known as the internet, 24/7 social media, apps, games, noise, news, and the dopamine effect that comes from escaping reality in the blink of an eye or the texting of the thumbs. These multiform avenues of distraction come in small bites, too, like a bottomless bowl of Skittles. You’ve all been there. You’re chewing a red, it’s not even down the hatch yet, and you’re already reaching for the next one, or a handful of next ones.

Impatience has replaced contemplation. Annoyance erupts the moment the old lady in front of you in the grocery store line mutters, “Let me see, I think I have change in here somewhere.”

We’ve done a number of first page critiques here at TKZ, because everyone knows how important it is. Because of decreasing attention spans and the “need for speed” in everything we do, those first pages are crucial because they are one of the biggest influences on a browser’s buying decision.

I recall hearing about a study years ago of bookstore browsing habits. The typical sequence: a cover captured attention; the browser picks it up and reads the dust-jacket copy, sees who the author is, then opens to the first page. If it captivates them they are within striking distance of a buying decision.

It’s the same today online. A reader on Amazon is shown other thumbnail book covers that an algorithm has determined they might be interested in. A cover attracts, you click on it, get taken to the sales page where you can look at the description (cover copy). The page offers you a “Look inside” peek. You can also download a sample.

And there we are again, at the opening pages.

For years I’ve taught that the opening page and, indeed, the opening paragraph (and even further, if you can do it, the opening line) should be about a disturbance to that character’s ordinary world. Why? Because the reader doesn’t know who the character is yet. So what’s the quickest way to get them interested? Trouble.

We all respond to someone else in trouble. Even a total stranger. It’s our human condition. And most readers are still human.

Now, every so often I’ll read a blog post that takes umbrage (when was the last time you had a good old dose of umbrage?) at the idea of having to “open with a bang” or “some kind of action.” They’ll usually start off with some form of restatement of the sentiment There are no rules! And then go on to describe that this is their story, and they will open it up they way they see fit (which always strikes me as a bit odd, because they are not the ones plunking down the money for the story, so isn’t it also a story for the readers? Just asking.)

What I would say in answer is simply this: do you want people to buy your books or not?

Okay, then let me suggest you alter your opening page so there is something disturbing happening from the jump. After the reader buys your book you can entrance them with your style all you like. But if you don’t engage their attention-challenged sensibilities immediately, you may not get the chance.

Have a look at this opening:

The day was sunny and breezy, if cool––the first semi-decent weather after a long, hard, bitter winter––and Kate didn’t actually mind an excuse to get out in the world. She wouldn’t take the cat, though; she would walk.

She stepped out the front door, shutting it extra hard behind her because it irked her that Bunny was sleeping so late. The ground cover along the front walk had a twiggy, littered look, and she made a mental note to spruce it up after she finished with the hellebores.

Swinging the lunch bag by its twist-tied neck, she passed the Mintzes’ house and the Gordons’ house––stately brick center-hall Colonials like the Battistas’ own, although better maintained––and turned the corner. Mrs. Gordon was kneeling among her azalea bushes, spreading mulch around their roots.

If I were doing the critique here at TKZ, I’d start off by quoting one agent who was asked what she disliked in an opening. “Slow writing with a lot of description will put me off very quickly,” she said. Most readers would agree.

The above clip is actually a slight adaptation of a section from Chapter 1 of Anne Tyler’s novel Vinegar Girl. But it’s a later section, not the actual opening. This is the first page:

Kate Battista was gardening out back when she heard the telephone ring in the kitchen. She straightened up and listened. Her sister was in the house, although she might not be awake yet. But then there was another ring, and two more after that, and when she finally heard her sister’s voice it was only the announcement on the answering machine. “Hi-yee! It’s us? We’re not home, looks like? So leave a––”

By that time Kate was striding toward the back steps, tossing her hair off her shoulders with an exasperated “Tcch!” She wiped her hands on her jeans and yanked the screen door open. “Kate,” her father was saying, “pick up.”

She lifted the receiver. “What,” she said.

“I forgot my lunch.”

Which leads to a short, disturbing conversation and then Kate’s reflection on why it’s disturbing. The other part, walking in the neighborhood, doesn’t come until after. (Note that a disturbance doesn’t have to be “big” like a car chase, ghost, or awakening in a hospital room. Just something that causes at least a ripple of portent in the character’s life.)

My point is that for any genre (including literary), beginning with a disturbance is actually part of a well-rounded marketing strategy––because it helps to close the deal by incentivizing a purchase.

This is not a compromise of your artistic vision! You have a whole novel for your artistic vision.

But if you want the readers to experience it, they have to want to buy the book. Don’t give them a reason to pass.

What about you? Do you read the “Look inside” sample on Amazon before you buy? Are you less patient with books these days?

How about less patient in general?

49 thoughts on “The Opening as Part of the Closing … of the Deal

  1. Speaking of a short attention span… Does opening with a disturbance apply to a short story the same way it would for a novel?

    • Great question, Ryan. As I discuss in my recent book on short story writing, I believe that a successful short story is about one “shattering moment.” That’s more than a mere disturbance, however, and doesn’t always occur at the beginning of a story.

      But there’s no reason why the first page of a short story shouldn’t carry a disturbance of some sort. Often a good way to do this is with a dialogue scene. Dialogue always presents the opportunity for subtle tension.

  2. When I read a book, I want to know that I’m in the hands of a skilled writer. I enjoy both literary novels and commercial fiction. However, if I spot writing deficiencies on the first page, I move on immediately. Problems that happen on the first page usually continue throughout the book.

    One of the books I’m currently reading is “The Light Between Oceans.” Here’s the opening line:

    “On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross.”

    This line got my attention, because it raises several questions:

    1. What miracle?
    2. Why did Isabel make a cross?
    3. What is she doing at the edge of a cliff?

    This is an example of my idea of good writing. The writer took the time to craft an interesting opening sentence. The description of the setting that followed was masterful. After reading the first page, I knew that my time and money wouldn’t be wasted.

    Why wouldn’t a writer want to engage the reader from the very first line? To do anything less is lazy writing. In my mind, this is not a matter of “patience.” A good first line is the sign that the writer is competent. There are many books competing for my attention, and there’s nothing “artistic” about lackluster writing.

    • “A good first line is the sign that the writer is competent.”

      I meant to write:

      “A good first line is a sign that the writer is competent.”

      Sorry for the typo.

    • That is a good opening line, Joanne, and shows the strategic skill of the writer. The description follows that line, after we’ve been hooked by the questions it raises.

      I’ve counseled many writers with slow opening pages (usually with a character alone, thinking or feeling), to skip ahead to the first dialogue exchange and start there. And then really rock the dialogue. The fastest way to give a reader (or editor or agent) confidence in your abilities is through sharp dialogue.

      • I rarely choose a book that begins with dialogue, but there are exceptions. One of my favorite books from childhood is “Charlotte’s Web.” Of course, the opening line is:

        “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

        This opening line leads with mystery and gets me to read the next line.

        Snappy dialogue is something that will get my attention, but the dialogue can’t be humdrum. If the dialogue is bloated and doesn’t advance the plot, it will lose me. There is an art to writing dialogue. I think studying film scripts can help with this.

  3. Jim, good advice–catch their attention early. I’ve heard it said that it’s not a story until something goes wrong. Thanks for sharing.

  4. “Start on the day that’s different” is what I’ve heard a lot. As for buying, since I don’t have any bookstores nearby, I’m all about getting a sample before plonking down coinage. However, it’s not often the cover that attracts me; it’ll be the short blurb. All this for new to me authors. For my favorites, I trust I’ll like the book.

  5. I actually rarely use the look inside feature to read an excerpt before I buy fiction. But that’s because either the book was recommended to me or I knew exactly what I was hunting for before I downloaded.

    And yes, sadly, I find I have less patience than before with anything–including books. However, once I start reading a book, I almost always finish it, regardless of whether I loved it or not. I have seen too many instances of a book starting off slow but then getting a lot better later on to just shut them out after the first page.

  6. I’m one of those readers who looks at the cover. Probably 80% of the time, I can tell by the cover if I’ll like the book. Then I’ll read the back cover or the peak inside feature on Amazon after which I’ll read the first page.

    You are correct – we need to hook our readers right away and there’s nothing worse than an opening scene that drags.

  7. ‘Note that a disturbance doesn’t have to be “big” like a car chase, ghost, or awakening in a hospital room…’

    Your examples in, ‘Plot and Structure,’ were spot on. A phone call at 2 a.m., a police car pulling into your driveway at 5 p.m. Not terrifying, but enough to get your attention

  8. I always read a sample—one page–even for recommended books, and if I don’t see at least competent writing, I’ll pass.

    I’m probably a “writing snob” when I’m choosing a book (even though my own writing always needs to improve). If I see “newbie” weaknesses, I’m tempted throw the book across the store, aiming at the store’s buyer, if possible.

    Openings are super important to me, as they are to most readers without much tolerance for wasting time. When I was on the publishing side of the business, I had a bit more patience and would read two pages unless newbie weaknesses screamed at me on the first page… the submissions without any redeeming merit were legion. But when I opened a manuscript and found voice and disturbance in the first paragraph, it was almost orgasmic–that’s how exceptional truly good writing can be. It’s what I aim for in my own writing.

    I love the word ‘disturbance’, by the way. We can read many books and blogs about writing, but sometimes the introduction of a new way of saying the same thing will grab us. “Disturbance” grabbed me. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Sheryl. I came up with “disturbance” as I asked myself why an opening didn’t grab me … and then what happened the moment the grab finally occurred. Then I simply reasoned that it’s easy for the writer to put the disturbance at the start, and “drop back” for any necessary info (setting, etc.). Simple, yet powerful.

  9. Yes, I do read the “Look inside” sample on Amazon. Yes, I am more impatient with books than I used to be. And yes, I am more impatient in general.

    I thought I could blame this change on becoming a grumpy old fart. But, thanks to your post, I now know that I can blame it on the change in our culture and the fast-paced lifestyle in which we must survive.

    Seriously, life is too short to waste our time doing things we don’t want (and don’t have) to do. A well known woodturner says “Life is too short to turn s**** (bad) wood.” Part of his reasoning is the danger of turning unstable wood that could fly apart and cause injury, or even death. There is an analogy there for writers. We are influenced by everything we read.

    I liked Joanne’s phrase, “in the hands of a skilled writer.” I think that is what I look for most in the “look inside” sample. Yes the opening disturbance gets my attention. But I want to know that the captain/pilot who is taking me on this journey is competent, that I will be able to sit back and enjoy the ride.

    So, grab the reader with the promise of something intriguing to get them on-board, but immediately dazzle them with your navigational skills as the ship leaves the harbor.

    Thanks, Jim, for another great post

  10. This topic makes me crazy, Jim, though it’s hard to deny the importance of the opening in today’s hectic world, especially for unknown writers like myself. But I think we get caught up in trying to make too much happen in the first 400 words. You even see it in the TKZ submissions AND the critiques. But I see a ray of hope in your post. Perhaps ‘a disturbance’ is enough. Maybe even better than ‘making something happen,’ e.g. killing people off, life and death situations, etc. I think it was you who quoted the opening to the Postman Always Rings Twice… “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” And it’s people like me who need to remember the subtlety of that opening disturbance.

    • Yes, exactly, Edward! It doesn’t have to be “big” or “loud.” It doesn’t have to be frenetic action. But I do prefer a character in “motion” of some kind, usually in a scene involving others. Characters alone, thinking, are not as interesting to me.

    • Readers need to understand what’s at stake for the main character and have a reason to care about him. A lot of action with no context won’t get an emotional response from the reader. That’s why it’s best, imho, to introduce the protagonist fully with, as James suggests, some disturbance to his normal world. If the protagonist is running for his life down a dark alley, the reader won’t empathize if she doesn’t know why or what’s at stake.

  11. Absolutely. If the “look inside” doesn’t grab me, I won’t buy. I’ve also become less patient. Years ago, if I started a book, I finished it. Today, if the story drags, I’ll move on to the next one. Life’s too short to struggle through books you don’t enjoy.

  12. You shared the following fundamental question for writers:
    “do you want people to buy your books or not?”
    Here is an old saying (i created it Friday) that obliquely addresses this author reality:
    “If you write a book and no one reads it, does a tree fall in the woods?”

    ? Thanks for another great post.

  13. Funny you should mention it.

    Nowadays, I buy all my books either on Kindle or on Kobo, both of which offer a preview functionality. Unless I am reading with a specific goal in mind, or it’s been recommended by someone trustworthy, I’ll give a book its opening page to entice me. If it fails, I’m done with it.

    I distantly remember holding on to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series first tome for the first 50 pages or so before it finally clicked. That book came highly recommended and in the end it did pay off. But it took an awful lot of time to get to the juicy pork belly part.

    Last week I bought Thomas Enger’s Cursed. I read through, errr, the prologue. It was intriguing, well-written and seemed to have generated a number of highly positive reviews.

    A few chapters in, past the prologue included in the free preview, I already borderline hate it. I’m forcing myself tor read the whole thing because:

    A) I’ve paid for it.
    B) I might learn some precious lessons

  14. One thing that turns me off in a book opening is a hero who is bored. Like, he’s the best of his class or whatever, and he’s whining about being bored. I do NOT want to spend time with someone bored and therefore boring.

    Two of my favorite hooks that I’ve written are for my paranormal romances.

    I met Mal the day he tried to kill my boyfriend.

    And the second book,

    “You’re going to have to tell your parents eventually, Libby,” Mal said.

  15. I watched the movie Genius last evening. It starred Colin Firth and Jude Law and depicted author Thomss Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins. Look Homeword Angel had such poetic passages.
    I am wondering if readers today have the patience to read poetic prose.
    I am interesting in writing and the exciting first sentences are difficult for me,
    I wonder if maybe my style would be served in another era.
    I appreciate all your books on writing, James. Thank you.

  16. Marie, that is a great question. First off, I don’t think “poetic style” has to mean you don’t open with a disturbance. Certainly you can! And why not? Start with an actual scene, characters in motion, as opposed to mere description. Why not save that until a bit later?

    As far as reader patience, even back in the days of Thomas Wolfe, more readers read pulp than literary. (Mickey Spillane said there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.) Have a look at my post on Thomas Wolfe .

    Story! Story! Then let your language SERVE, not dominate the story.

  17. Thank you, James for such great writing advice. I really appreciate it.
    I love the insightful post about Thomas Wolfe.
    Thanks, again.

  18. I always “look inside.” And thanks for your how-to example. I was worried that my new opening was a click instead of a bang. Maybe it’s not. And, BTW, Dodgers are okay this year–I’m at Spring Training.

  19. I always “look inside” before choosing or not choosing a book on Amazon. I also read the inside flyleaf, and samples on my Nook before purchasing.

    I’m getting fussier about what I read. I’m tiring of the same old, same old stories. I checked out John Grisham’s latest book, “The Whistler, read a sample, etc. It didn’t grab me, but I’ve read most of his books so I purchased it. This one was a disappointment. He’s not knocking my socks off with his writing anymore.

    After reading samples of opening chapters, if the story doesn’t intrigue me, I pass on it.

  20. Jim,
    This blurb couldn’t be more timely or accurate. For those of us writing fast paced modern commercial thrillers these tips are a must. Pro or con the audience skews to short attention spans. I go into a brick and mortar about once a month as an exercise and see what stands out to me in the new releases. You can do this online, but I think it’s more effective in person. I read the cover copy and first pages of all the greats in my genre on the front rack (Lee Child, Connelly, Lehane, et al.) making mental notes on POV, style, and beginnings. If I were going to face Kershaw I would watch an awful lot of video wouldn’t I? Same thing here. You have to know what works and what doesn’t in 2017.

    Thanks for this,

Comments are closed.