Your opening words must reach out and grab readers fast or you'll lose them for sure. Sometimes a reader will stick with you for pages, maybe even chapters. But you can't count on it.
How do you choose a book in a bookstore? Read the back cover? Maybe scan the cover flap? Flip through the pages, checking the "white" to see if it contains mostly long, narrative writing or fast-paced dialogue? Read the opening paragraph?
Picture this: someone runs into the bookstore to grab a novel to read out on the beach or on a cruise. She hurries down the aisle, scanning book after book, reading the opening pages to see if it sounds interesting. Would your words reach out from the shelves and grab her?
Okay, let's back up a step. An agent (or editor), bone-tired and ready to call it quits after a long, depressing week, picks up a stack of manuscripts to take home for the weekend read. He sticks yours in among the 30 others. Will he open it, read the first page, the second, and not be able to put it down? Or will he read the first page, sigh, and fall asleep?
There are always exceptions, but readers (and agents and editors are readers, too) don't want to read pages or even paragraphs describing the weather or what a character is wearing or the bell tower (or whatever). If you put that in the opening sentences, it better be exceptional writing and intricate to the plot. The background story on the protagonist may be necessary to understand his arc, it may be essential to explain his actions, but is it essential to put it upfront? Is it worth losing readers? Could it be sprinkled in later?
Remember to start each scene--and your story as a whole--as close to the end as possible. A lot of times that means cutting the first chapter or maybe a whole chunk of pages. We write the first draft, then go back and realize the novel begins slowly because we've started the story way too early. We've given too much background or delayed the action. That means we haven't given the reader any reason to keep reading.
So many times when I’m editing for clients, I get well into the first chapter or even further into the book and I suddenly come across the opening. I’ll leave a comment like: This is where your story begins. The pages before that point are usually back story or a slow build-up. A lot of readers won’t get that far. They’ll quit and put the book back on the bookstore shelf.
And we really, really, want them to keep reading. To keep them turning pages you, the writer, must be…a hooker.
The late Helen Ginger (1952-2021) was an author, blogger, and the Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services and writing coach. She was also a former mermaid. She taught public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. Helen was the author of Angel Sometimes, Dismembering the Past, and three books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series.