Question: What one thing do you look for in the opening chapter and that makes you read on?
A good friend, an esteemed literary colleague, Peggy Ullman Bell (who does the editing of my manuscripts) once said, relaying to me the advice of her mentor:
“If you can get the reader to smell the coffee on the first page, that reader will be with you for the entire rest of the way.”
Smell the coffee. Perfect.
The first chapter, the first paragraph, the first sentence - all are of paramount importance. Imagery, setting, characters, smells, noises, thoughts and emotions must be forward, intriguing, and captivating. It is vital the author snag the reader’s attention, grab hold of all the senses, and bring the story alive with immediacy. If not, a yawn will transpire; the book will go back on the shelf of the library or bookstore.
I'll illustrate with two examples. One will be my attempt at a coma-inducing "back-on-the-shelf" opening paragraph, and the other will be a more serious stab at snaring a reader's full attention.
The drive seemed like it would last forever. On and on the miles and hours rolled by, with not so much as an interesting sight to break up the monotony. Route 66 through the Oklahoma flatlands was not very exciting. Betty wondered again if she had made the right choice. Leaving the bright lights and fast pace of the big city life, opting to relocate to the country. It was a radical move, an attempt to break through a year long writer’s block. Her publisher was fast growing impatient. She had received her hefty advance more than twelve months ago. No sooner than she had gotten over the thrill of her first six figure contract she promptly lost all inspiration. Hadn’t written anything worth fool’s gold in all this time. Doubts were growing inside her. Am I still a writer? Was that first best-seller novel just an aberration? She certainly hoped not. She was becoming unbearable to be around, so snarky and foul of mood. Calvin had moved out, telling her to look him up when she snaps out of her funk.
So this was the famous Route 66. Betty winced and applied pressure to her temple with two fingers. It wasn't much - boring as hell. And holy mother of god, the malodorous cow manure. She wondered if she had lost her last brain cells making this move. She buttoned the window up, turned on the air and nestled back, massaging her sore stiff shoulders against the soft tan leather. Her migraine felt like it was going to split her head apart. It was the pressure. All the flippin’ pressure. If she didn’t get a world-class manuscript to her publisher within three months her career was soggy toast. A hideous doubt had grown to a giant within her. Was she still a writer?
The first example is not as good as the second one for several reasons. For one, it is rather long, with too much back-story for my liking. A taste of back story is all I want in an entire opening chapter, let alone a first paragraph chocked full of it. I like to be teased with what, where, when and how questions. Captivate me with a conflict and the introduction of one or two interesting characters. That compels me to read on to find out how the situation came to be and how it will be resolved. Add to those problems the fact that the writing is flat; a monotonous rambling on about monotony. The second example is shorter, with better imagery, has more emotion and introduces the character and her dilemma with just enough hint of back story to hook me.