Appearances count. This might sound like grade school all over again, but I’m not talking about the neatness of your work. I know your work looks great; you are or you want to be a professional, and you act like it. What I am talking about is the overall appearance of the printed work; what the book, blog, or article looks like as a whole.
You have a great beginning, so you sit back smugly thinking that all a reader has to do is pick up your work and they will be hooked. Not so fast. Even before people read that first line, they quickly leaf through the book or scan the article. If they don’t like what they see, that fabulous first paragraph will never be read.
So, what is it they are looking for?
First, potential readers look at paragraph size. If the paragraphs are too long, they feel that the work will be ponderous; if the paragraphs are too short, they think it will be lightweight. And if all paragraphs are more or less the same size, they get an immediate impression of stagnation. An experienced writer knows how to vary the lengths of the paragraphs according to the flow of the story. Since everything in a story is connected to everything else, the size of your paragraphs should be connected to the rhythm of the story: short paragraphs for action scenes, longer ones for a respite. A variety of paragraph sizes from one to ten lines tell readers you will keep their attention.
Second, potential readers look for italics. An occasional italicized word is good for emphasis. An occasional italicized sentence is a way of indicating the character’s thoughts. But when there are long italicized paragraphs, or even entire italicized chapters, readers lose interest. Italics tell them that those passages are not part of the story, and can be skipped. So if you know most readers won’t read those passages, may even use the sight of them as an excuse not to read the entire work, figure out another way to present the material. I know that some experienced writers fall into the trap of italicizing flashbacks, but they (or their editors) should know better.
Third, potential readers look at dialogue. Long dialogue looks like preaching, and few readers are interested in your sermons. And long sections of one or two word dialogue looks inane. And generally is inane:
“How are you.”
“Fine, how about you?”
Even worse is using dialect. Too many apostrophes say that you do not know how to write dialogue. It’s better to use colloquialisms like “That dang fiddle-foot don’t rightly know what he’s talking about.” It gets the point across, and is easier to read.
Now that you’ve passed the scan test, you are ready to hook your reader.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.