The Opening as Part of the Closing … of the Deal

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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?

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