Perhaps you’ve heard the old publishing proverb: The first page sells the book; the last page sells the next book. I’m convinced there’s a mammoth grain of truth in that. The beginning and the end of any story are critical elements that you really want to nail.
Today, we’re going to focus on how to start a story—in other words, how you can craft a spectacular beginning that will hold readers spellbound and get them to turn that first all-important page.
If you’re looking for a surefire way to improve your story, you’ll be happy to know there’s a fast-acting method at your disposal. According to writing expert James Scott Bell, it’s “the fastest way to improve any manuscript.”
I’m talking about dialogue.
But here’s the thing—dialogue is more than just the words you put in your characters’ mouths. On screen and stage, it’s the actor’s job to take his lines and infuse them with meaning, expression, emotion, and so on. On the page, that’s your job.
As a writer, you’ve probably learned that story is not about what happens. Rather, it’s about how the events affect the protagonist. The plot points may appeal to the reader’s intellect, but you want to go deeper than that, reaching and stirring the coals of a reader’s emotions. That kind of emotional writing is when you make a real connection, establishing something meaningful between writer and reader.
But how is this done? How do you reach beyond the plot points and offer your reader something more? There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but I’m going to focus on one technique that might surprise you.
If you’ve made it your mission to write, it’s probably because you love reading. Your life has been touched and changed by books you’ve read and stories you’ve heard since you were a tot, and now you want to create that experience for others. The irony is that once you start writing, it’s often difficult to find time for reading, and that’s just wrong on so many levels.
Have you ever felt cheated when reading a book? Like the author held back information that would have enhanced your reading experience? Or neglected to include all the relevant details that would have allowed you to solve the mystery? Did the sequence of events in the story feel…off?
Think about this:
What if J.K. Rowling neglected to have Hagrid tell Harry about his parents’ deaths until the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone?
What if the writers of Die Hard had let Hans Gruber discover Holly was John McClane’s wife right up front?
What if Suzanne Collins had forgotten to alert readers to a rule change allowing tributes from the same district to win as a team in The Hunger Games?
Leaving out these vital pieces of information—or putting them in the wrong place—would have robbed these stories of a full measure of suspense. This would have dulled the impact of their final scenes.
As a writer, you never want readers to feel cheated or disappointed by your book. But how can you make sure you include all the relevant pieces of the puzzle, in the right order, to sustain suspense and satisfy your reader?