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.