An unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story. ~Ursula K. Le Guin
Thank you to Becca Puglisi and to Writers in the Storm for these strategies for grabbing your readers in the first few pages. Puglisi is one of the founders of Writers Helping Writers and One Stop for Writers.
As authors, we all know the importance of engaging our audience within a book’s first few pages. It’s called grabbing the reader: captivating them in a way that makes them want to stick with the story to its end.
Michael Hauge prefers the term seducing:
“Everybody likes to be seduced; it’s a gradual, enjoyable, and emotionally involving experience that thoroughly captures our attention.” (Writing Screenplays That Sell)
Whatever your terminology, drawing in readers is a vitally important process that needs to happen at the beginning of your story. Also called the set-up, it’s everything that occurs before the all-important catalyst that propels your character out of his regular world into a new one. According to Blake Snyder (Save the Cat), the set-up should consist of roughly the first 12% of your story. This is a guideline that you can set in stone or take with a grain of salt, depending on your plotting/pantsing style. But 12% is a good rule of thumb because it’s enough real estate to set the stage and draw readers in without it dragging on and putting them to sleep.
Unfortunately, we can get the length of the set-up right and still not achieve the goal of pulling readers in. To do this, we have to tap into their emotions. If we don’t make them feel, they won’t be invested in the character; if they’re not invested in the character, they won’t care what happens to him and won’t keep reading to see if he succeeds. So it’s incredibly important that the set-up elicit emotion from the reader. There are a few things you can include in your opening pages that will help accomplish this.
Readers start reading a book for a variety of reasons: they liked the premise, it was a recommended by a friend, they’re a fan of the author. Readers keep reading because they connect with the characters. We have a very small window—that first 12%—to achieve the reader-character connection, and eliciting empathy is a great way to make it happen. Here are a few ways to encourage that special something between the reader and your protagonist.
- Universal Needs. Readers like characters they can relate to in some way. One way to bond your audience of unique individuals to the protagonist is to remove one of her basic human needs, such as belonging or surviving. Because everyone understands these needs, taking one of them away from your hero can endear readers to her. This is one reason Katniss Everdeen was such a successful protagonist. Most readers couldn’t relate to her circumstances of having to kill others to survive, but they could understand needing to protect a vulnerable loved one or providing for one’s family. If you want to increase your reader’s empathy for the hero, try taking away a universal need, and the reader will stay tuned to see if she can get it back.
- Admirability. People are drawn to those they admire, so it’s a good idea to give your hero some qualities that readers will appreciate or aspire to themselves. Intelligence, a sense of humor, kindness, generosity, honor—these are attributes people long for. Seeing them personified in the hero opens us up to them, making us want them to do well. Notice that I didn’t say a protagonist must be likable (though that works, too). As a selfish and manipulative character, Scarlett O’Hara isn’t exactly a glowing role model, but people relate to her because of her shrewdness, tenacity, and confidence. It’s her admirable qualities that win readers over.
- Uniqueness. Readers, along with editors, agents, and publishers, are tired of seeing new versions of the same old characters. We want someone who surprises us with something new. A janitor who anonymously and effortlessly solves impossible math theorems at M.I.T. (Good Will Hunting). An art student in Prague who collects teeth for the demons who raised her (Daughter of Smoke and Bone). When you’re creating your protagonist, see what you can do to make him or her stand out from the crowd and be remembered.
- Remarkability. Few people truly excel in any area, but most would like to. Characters who are remarkable in some way speak to our need for esteem and recognition, whether it’s because they’re intelligent, incredibly talented, or have an unusual ability. Make your character extraordinary and readers will often respond.
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If you are writing a story, you must consider how you will handle these seven elements:
Plot—is what happens. It is the action that starts in the beginning, continues through the middle, and wraps up at the end. Action adventure novels and thrillers are often plot-driven, as are some mysteries.
Setting—is where and when the story happens. The story is profoundly affected by the setting. A story that happens in a suburban town in the present will be very different from a story set in the past on a distant planet.
Character—is who the story is about. The people doing the doing. You need at least one. Most novels have an extensive cast of characters. You have a protagonist, and antagonist, the people who support each, and some random individuals. In order for the characters to be believable, they must each need something, and usually what one needs is at odds with what another needs. Each character’s back story (his life before the beginning of the book) must be considered, even if it isn’t shared with the reader. Each person is the way she is because of something that happened in her past. Many, many novels are character-driven. In my opinion, characters are the most important element of fiction.
Point of view—is the perspective of the person narrating the story or scene. It’s okay to have multiple narrators, but make sure it’s always clear to the reader whose head he’s in at any given time. Generally, it is confusing to change POV within a single scene.
Point of view can be first person, second person, or third person.
First person is when the story is being told by a character, either the protagonist, the antagonist, or a secondary character, using his own words and voice, using the pronouns I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, and ours.
Second person is when the story is being told about and to a person: you did this, you said that. The second person is rarely used in fiction, because it is hard to pull off for a long period of time, but I have seen it successfully used in a memoir that a parent wrote for his child, specifically about the child’s childhood.
Third person can be the viewpoint of a person removed from the story, the invisible author. Pronouns used would be he, she, him, her, they, their, etc. The third person narrator could be omniscient, all-knowing, like God. God knows everyone’s deepest thoughts, and the omniscient narrator does, too, and shares them with the reader. This is the way classical literature was written.
However, contemporary fiction favors an objective third person view point, where the narrator tells only what is observable. That means the writer is very limited about how thoughts are shared. Generally, if a character is alone, we can hear her thoughts. In other scenes, a viewpoint character can be selected, and the story is told through what he can observe, and possibly also through his thoughts. But again, it must be clear to the reader whose head he’s inside. And also, if the reader wonders how a character knows something based on what should be observable to him, the reader will disconnect from the story.
Conflict—there is no story without conflict. There are two types of conflict, external and internal. An external conflict involves a problem which exits outside of the character, such as a problem with another character or an institution, or a dangerous situation, like wartime or an avalanche. An internal conflict is a problem or need within the character, such as an addiction, or wanting the object of her desire to notice her. In good full-length fiction, the main character, the antagonist, and some of the supporting characters all experience external and internal conflict. In short fiction, there might only be one conflict.
Theme—is a universal truth that your story illustrates. The theme can be as trite as Believe in yourself or Love makes the world go round, or it can be something the writer is passionate about. You don’t have to beat your theme into the reader, but every chapter should reflect the theme, even subversively, in order to have continuity. If you do not chose a theme for your story, or the story does not adhere to a theme, the reader will sense something is missing and try to find her own theme in it. Do not allow your story to be pointless; your reader will be disappointed.
Symbol—is an item that stands for something else. A ring that stands for power; an heirloom teacup that represents love of family. It’s hard not to include a symbol in fiction. If you don’t consciously put one in, your readers will unconsciously find one. (When I wrote worship drama for my church, my ministry partner was constantly finding symbols in my skits that I hadn’t purposely put in.) So you might as well choose a symbol that relates to your theme, and be sure to refer to it several times in the story.
Depending on your story, certain elements may fall into place easily, while others may challenge you and send you to the library or a writer’s workshop for help. However, to write successful fiction, you must give consideration to them all.
Victoria Thompson is the popular author of twenty-two romance novels, the historical Gaslight Mystery series (twenty-two books and counting), and the Counterfeit Lady novels (Book 3 coming out soon).
I have to brag that I’ve know Vicki since 1982. When my second child was born, she was my La Leche League leader. Soon afterward, she started a Bible study group for young mothers, and she was instrumental in leading me back to the Lord.
She was also the first person I’d ever known to actually have a book published.
Vicki graciously agreed to be interviewed for ARHtistic License.
What was your undergraduate major?
VT: English/Secondary Education; I like to say I’m a retired teacher—I taught one year and retired! This was in a public Middle School in 1970.
You teach writing popular fiction in the Masters program at Seton Hill University. How did that come about?
VT: I was invited to teach in the program when it was just getting started in 2000. A writer friend recommended me.
I’ve heard your books characterized as “cozy” mysteries. What constitutes a cozy?
VT: A “cozy” or traditional mystery is defined as a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. That doesn’t mean a small town, necessarily, although many traditional mysteries are set in small towns. It just means the group of suspects are members of a small social community, i.e. friends, family members, members of a church or club, etc.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
VT: Yes. My process is actually somewhere in the middle. I come up with my victim and the cast of suspects before I start writing, but I have no idea who the killer is or what exactly will happen, so I just wing it from there.
Why historical fiction?
VT: I love history and I love exploring how human nature has not really changed ever. The technology is different, but people are not. They are still concerned about the same things now as they were a hundred years ago. I have tried writing contemporary novels, but they just never quite click, for some reason. I think I just have a naturally historical voice and sensibility.
How do you do your research?
VT: I have three sets of bookshelves full of reference books in my office that I consult, but it’s also very easy to use Google for things as well. I don’t even have to get out of my chair! Google will often lead me to a specific reference book and if it’s not available any other way, I’ll get it from the library or inter-library loan.
How long does it take you to write a book?
VT: Around 6 months, including research and “thinking.”
What is the most fun part of writing a book?
VT: Getting to that point in the book where you realize you’ve got all the clues in place, you know who the killer is and why they did it and all you have to do is write it up so others can read it. For me, this usually happens around 2/3-3/4 of the way through the manuscript.
Who is your agent, and how did you connect?
VT: My agent is Nancy Yost. We have been together about 25 years (neither of us remembers exactly when she took me on). She was originally my editor for two books I wrote for Avon. I had just hired a new agent when she told me she was leaving Avon to become an agent. Two years later, I fired that agent and went with Nancy.
What is something about your books or about yourself that you wish your readers knew?
VT: I have very little control over the cover art (I do get to approve it or suggest changes), and no control at all over when or how often the books are published and how much they cost. Also, I’d love to write 12 books a year, to keep my fans happy, but that’s physically impossible.
Ryan Dalton is the author of three YA novels, the Time Shift trilogy: The Year of Lightning (2016), The Black Tempest (2017), and The Genesis Flame (2018). He recently agreed to answer questions for ARHtistic License.