The age of writing long descriptive passages (or even short ones) at the beginning of a novel has passed. Today people want to be drawn immediately into the story without wading through such excess. An editor might look at the first five pages before tossing aside your manuscript, but potential customers will give you a mere twenty seconds to draw them in. Once you have caught their attention, they might read a little further, and perhaps they will even buy the book. They certainly will not wade through five, ten, fifty pages until they get to “the good part.”
That “good part” must be right up front, especially if you’re a first-time writer. That’s all you have going for you — the ability to get off to a fast start and capture the reader’s attention. Your name certainly won’t do it; no one knows who you are yet. Your credentials might help, but only to establish your credibility after a potential reader has been hooked. And they will never be hooked by your ability to turn a clever phrase.
So what will hook the reader? A character. Always a character. No one reads a book for a description of the weather, a place, or an issue. They don’t even want a description of the character. They want to meet him, to see life through his eyes, to bond with him. They want to know what he wants, what his driving force is. And they want to know who or what he’s in conflict with.
Without conflict, there is no story, but without a character for the reader to care about, there is no story either. Character and conflict are inextricably combined, and together they create the tension necessary to sustain a story. I know you think it’s okay to let the tension rise slowly, which it is, but the tension level at the beginning must be high enough to let the reader know something is going on.
I rewrote More Deaths Than One four times, and each time, the story fell flat. It wasn’t until I realized I’d spent too much time describing things or had Bob alone meandering through much of the story that the book took on life. I gave Bob a love interest, a server he met at a coffee shop.
More Deaths Than One begins:
“What do you think of a guy who embezzles from his own business?”
Bob Stark recognized the voice of the graveyard shift waitress, the attractive one with the black hair. He glanced up from his contemplation of the scars on the laminated plastic table and saw her standing by his booth, gazing at him, her eyebrows quirked. She seemed to expect a response, but he had no idea what to say.
This isn’t the real hook, it’s just enough to capture your attention so I can reel you in for the punchline.
Reviewer Sheila Deeth said, The first three pages of “More Deaths than One” have to constitute a serious contender for the best opening scene of a novel. Two main characters are introduced, a garrulous waitress and a taciturn hot-chocolate customer. They meet. She talks, a lot. He reads the paper. “And Lydia Loretta Stark was dead. Again.” With two such immediately real and appealing characters, and a line like that, I’d challenge anyone not to want to keep turning the pages.
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.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.