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It’s first page week here at TKZ, and if you’re an unpublished writer you’ve been treated to some real gold.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.