It’s essential that the first few pages of your novel intrigue the reader, like the bait on a hook entices a fish. But if the fish doesn’t take the bait, then you’re having a plain old salad for dinner. It’s the same with a story: if the opening pages of your book don’t hold the reader’s attention, then they likely won’t finish it, and certainly won’t recommend it to their friends or provide a favourable review.
When I’m reading a new story, the first few pages have to grab me and hold my interest. By the end of the first chapter, I expect to be so absorbed in the plot and the character’s lives that I absolutely cannot put the book down.
So how does an author get their readers onto that proverbial fish hook?
Firstly, the opening pages need to make the reader feel something. Consider using either characters or scene to establish some sort of emotion in your readers. It may be that you introduce a great main character with whom the reader can identify. Perhaps it’s the girl next door who reminds the reader of their best friend, or the sympathy elicited by the devastated parent mourning the recent loss of a child. Or you may choose to introduce the loathsome criminal who the readers immediately want to see come to a remarkably unpleasant demise. To make the reader care about your characters, they need to be genuine, or the reader won’t be drawn into their lives and won’t keep reading.
You can also create emotion by establishing the scene. Imagining the horrors of the hundred children with their sunken eyes and malnourished bodies toiling away in a Bangladeshi sweat shop elicits very different emotions in the reader compared to those evoked by the imagery of an exclusive country club where tuxedoed waiters serve complimentary Moët to every guest upon their arrival. Regardless of whether you use characters or scene to open your story, those opening pages must make your reader wonder about the people or the places, and want to know more about them.
Another way in which to keep your readers reading is to establish a problem or conflict in the early scenes. For example, Emily has locked her keys and mobile phone in her car and it’s getting late. Does she risk walking home through the not-so-safe streets to get her spare key, or does she swallow her pride, knock on the door she just slammed and ask her cheating ex-boyfriend if she can use his phone to call someone to help her? Emily’s dilemma drives the story forward, making the reader want to turn the page to see which decision she makes.
Starting a story in the midst of the action is another way in which to draw your reader into the book. Having a drug deal going down in a seedy back alley or a bloody gun battle in West Somalia on page one creates momentum that can captivate the reader right from the start. However, you need to ensure you provide the reader with just enough information about the characters and scene so that they aren’t confused by the action.
Like any good fisherman would know, fishing is not quite as simple as just hooking the fish. Just because you’ve hooked it, doesn’t mean that you can reel it into the boat, so after getting the reader firmly hooked on your characters and plot you’ll need to ensure the rest of your story keeps them on the line until the very end.
Kelly Inglis’s bio page
Writing Novels in Australia