Speech, action, description.
What do all of these things have in common? Well, yes, they’re all words; but, more importantly, they’re ways to start your story! And we all love starting stories…
When readers start reading, you have about 3-5 seconds to capture their attention. I’ve just read a page of something and discovered that when I read normally, 3-5 seconds is about 20-30 words. Some sources say you have 10 seconds, which is what I actually did – and that was 59 words.
As you can see, you don’t have a long time, maybe one or two sentences. So how do you keep those readers reading?
The first line (I’m keeping this with a story, but if it’s a film or play, say about the first few minutes, even seconds. If it’s a poem, unless it’s like the Odyssey, they’re bound to keep reading cause it’s short) is crucially important. Most readers will try and at least make it to the last line of the first page before the put the book down and pick up another, or click the ‘back’ button on the top of the screen, but it’d be a lot easier for you if they were hooked from the beginning. Of course, you have to do your job and keep them reading beyond that, but that’s for another article next week.
I have in front of me 3 books (they were just lying around, but they’re quite different and I hope at least one appeals to you). Here are their first lines:
- ‘Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.’ – The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
- ‘I suppose a lot of teenage girls feel invisible sometimes, like they just disappear.’ – I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter
- ‘Sam Horwitz had never felt so excited.’ – The Forgotten Army by Brian Minchin (Doctor Who book)
So, the question is, what is it about these first lines that keep readers reading?
Well, The Da Vinci Code intrigues us with the words ‘renowned’, ‘staggered’ and introducing a character. We’re wondering why they’re staggering, and how they are renowned. Curious? Yes. (I’d just like to point out now that I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, so no spoilers please. It is on my to-read list though, promise!)
Ally Carter’s book (come on, that title is way too long to type out) pulls us in by wondering why this narrator (we’re assuming a teenage girl, but can’t be sure) is talking about teenage girls and why they’re disappearing. It’s relatable, too, ’cause we’ve all felt like it (I’m assuming). And we want to know why the narrator is talking about feeling invisible – maybe they’re actually invisible? We don’t know, but we want to find out.
Finally, The Forgotten Army grabs our attention by introducing a character and making him excited. We’re wondering why he’s excited, what it is he’s looking at. We’re wondering who this Sam is, as well, and that keeps us reading too.
Now we’ve seen how the professionals do it. But how can we apply this to ourselves?
There are many things you can do (note: not all of these apply to the first line, but definitely the first page):
- DO give them something interesting, eg humour or action, preferably in the first line. People
wantneed something to keep them continue reading. You are the writer, you have to do that for them. SO DO IT.
- DO ensure spelling, grammar and punctuation are the best they can be (this puts so many people off. Make sure the first page is typo-free, at least).
- DO introduce a character that the readers are interested in. (The Da Vinci Code)
- DO introduce a setting that the readers are interested in. (I don’t have one with setting at the moment, but I’m sure you know what I mean – crumbling walls and what-not)
- DO introduce a scenario the readers are interested in. (The other two)
The first line has to snap up the readers’ attention. Throw them your best language, most fabulous description. Think about what made you read this article (hopefully it’s ’cause you were curious about the first three words. If not, that’s gone horribly wrong).
In anything, the first line has to get your readers asking six questions that keep them going: who, what, when, where, why and how. These questions may pop up later in the first paragraph, but by the end of the page, your readers should be thinking ‘come on, I want to know!’
And this, my friend, is what keeps them going. And another important thing is not to drivel on in your first chapter, as I am doing now (I’ll stop soon, promise).
I think it’d be easier right now to write about what not to do when starting. Here:
- DO NOT start with describing the weather. The only time this is acceptable is when the character is about to get struck by lightening, or it is huge to your plot. If your character is sitting in the garden, start with something different other than they’re basking in the sun.
- DO NOT start with something that doesn’t come to play in the rest of the book (eg the WEATHER). In The Forgotten Army, Sam is excited about a new exhibit, but it all goes horribly wrong – his excitement helps to create a plot twist.
- DO NOT start with character or setting (eg, ‘It was 1949 and the beach was golden…’) description. At least give us some action first, otherwise the readers are gonna put your story down ’cause they’ll assume it’s all boring drivel. I originally got you reading with excitement and curiosity, and here you are now – reading my boring drivel.
- Basically, don’t start with anything you wouldn’t want to read yourself. There, that’s easy, isn’t it?
I hope I’ve given you some food for thought about how to start your next piece, or, indeed, update existing ones. And if you’ve read this far have a cookie, cause this has been quite a long article. Sorry about that. Quite a lot to say on the subject to be honest.
Here’s a task for you: find a book you loved and a book you hated/didn’t finish and look at their first lines. What dragged you into the one you liked, and made you put down the one you didn’t?
Questions, comments, thoughts? Shoot! 😀
Ps sorry it was so long, I got a little carried away…