Thursday, June 7, 2018

How To Write A Novel Readers Love - The Opening

Dear Storyteller,

Wow! You have accomplished so much. Though it may not seem like you've made a lot of headway in the completion of your novel, you've written a huge part of your story. How? By creating your characters, crafting their individual conflicting backstories, and charting your storyline.

These are steps that so many would-be writers never take when they start their novels. You should be proud of your monumental achievements. The hard work you’ve put in will set you on a course to successfully writing a novel that readers love.

Now’s the time you’ve been waiting for. It’s time to start writing your story.

And it all begins with one important thing.

The Opening Sentence

The opening sentence will either make or break your novel. Lock this fact into memory. Repeat it twenty one times or more, if you need to. Never forget this fact.

Why is the opening sentence so important?

I am so glad you asked. The opening sentence, if written the right way, will subconsciously persuade your reader to keep reading. How? By making sure your opening sentence answers three questions asked subconsciously by the reader’s brain.

1.    Whose story is it?
2.    What exactly is going on here?
3.    Why should the reader care about the story?

Your opening sentence needs to answer these questions in such a way that your reader’s brain finds satisfactory. 

Our brains are hardwired to ask these questions in the cognitive unconscious space every time we pick up a book and begin reading the first page. The amazing part is that we don’t even realize it’s happening. I’ll touch more on this phenomenon in a future post. Just know for now that your brain is asking questions about every story it encounters, from the second you read the first word.

If your opening sentence can’t answer these three key questions, the reader’s brain subconsciously prompts the reader to put the book down, and pick up another, and another until the reader finds a story that can answer the questions that her brain is asking.

This is the Hollywood equivalent of the question that every movie producer dreads.

What else is playing?

The last thing you want as a writer is for your reader to put down your novel and pick up a novel that’s not yours, and read it cover to cover—in one sitting. Don’t let that happen to you. Make sure your novel is the story that the reader subconsciously chooses to read. Nail your opening sentence.

If your opening sentence can do three things, you will have a best-selling novel, and at least a million tired, but satisfied readers. The three things are…

  • Grab your reader’s undivided attention.
  • Make your reader care about your story.
  • Make your reader want to know what happens next in your story.

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? This is the exact effect you want to have on your reader. I hope it is, anyway. What writer wouldn’t want to possess this level of mesmerizing power over readers?

So, how do you do it?

Well, that’s easy. If at all possible, just tell the whole story of your novel in one sentence—your opening sentence.

Wait a minute. What’s so easy about that? That sounds impossible.

Don’t panic. It’s not as impossible as you might think. You don’t have to write the plot of your entire novel in one sentence. Writing that much information would be impossible.

But what if you could at least hint at what happens in the plot of your story—especially how the plot forces your protagonist to undergo her internal change, in your opening sentence? You can.

This is where reviewing the point of your story and your protagonist’s goal and longstanding misbelief will prove to be valuable. It might also help to review her "All Is Lost" moment for insight.

When I crafted my opening sentence for my young adult novel From Bad Girl To Worse, I took into account my heroine’s name, her goal and her longstanding misbelief. Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Heroine’s name: Sandra Porter, represented as “I” in the first person.
  • Heroine’s goal: She wants at least one meaningful relationship in her life.
  • Heroine’s misbelief: She believes that she will only wreck any relationship she attempts to have—with anyone.
  • Heroine’s “All Is Lost” moment: Sandra finds herself neck deep in the commission of crime—the murder of her teacher.

Using this information, I drafted several versions of the opening sentence. Through several rewrites, this is what the final draft of the opening sentence of From Bad Girl To Worse looks like:

“On a sunny autumn morning, I left my house for school, excited about seeing my friend Lexie and Mack, the cute guy I met over the weekend.”

Immediately, you see a picture of friends getting together. You feel Sandra’s joy about meeting these two. This sets up the next sentence up perfectly. Here it is:

“I never dreamed my short-lived relationship with the two would end up in murder a few days later.”

Wow, what a juxtaposition! First, you envision three teenagers getting together and having some laughs. Then, the vision darkens in an instant under the shroud of murder. Talk about a one-two punch.

I don’t know about you, but if I read these two sentences for the first time, I'd certainly be compelled to keep reading. My brain would be extremely satisfied with the answers to its questions. These sentences would plunge me headlong into the story.

In the first sentence, I introduce some important things about the story.

  • I introduce a single protagonist, or viewpoint character. I give the reader an avatar to slip into. The story is written in first person, so unless the reader reads the book blurb on the back, or online, the reader will not immediately know her name. But the reader does get a sense there is one person to ultimately pay attention to—and follow throughout the story.
  • Sandra, the heroine, is getting together with two friends. One of them is a new acquaintance—Mack. She’s excited about getting together with them. This sentence immediately speaks to our need for acceptance, our need to belong. We want to be Sandra and have friends—just like her. We, along with her, want to be accepted. We want to be welcomed by others. In just one sentence, we get a brief rush of pleasure, induced by vicarious acceptance. This part of the opening sentence also tells us that the story will revolve around Sandra’s relationship with her two friends. But you also get the sense that all is not as it seems between the three of them. You sense that there’s something more going on than Sandra just meeting two friends at school.

Then, the second sentence pulls the reader in with the prospect of murder. Who will it be? Sandra? Lexie? Mack? The reader is hooked. She must read on to find out.

Not to toot my horn or anything (well, I’m going to do it anyway) but several times, my editor commented in her editorial notes that I have a talent for drawing readers into a story.

But it’s not talent as much as it is skill. I worked hard to develop the skill of storytelling. I honed a skill for crafting compelling opening sentences.

The reason why I’m telling you this is not to boast. I’m telling you this to say that if I can develop the coveted skill of drawing readers into a story, then…

So can you!

And learning how to craft opening sentences is an important element of great storytelling, and drawing readers deep into a narrative.

I'll leave you with one last piece of advice: Know that there is a caveat that comes with crafting a killer opening sentence: You'd better craft an equally killer story to back it up.

Keeping you in suspense,

L. R. Farren

P. S. – As long as your first paragraph draws readers into the story, you should have little problem enticing readers to finish reading your novel.

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