Journalists write lead sentences/paragraphs on a daily basis. They know it’s as crucial as a first introduction to pique the reader’s interest, to get them interested in reading more. What about book-length projects such as novels and memoir?
Writing Tip for Today: How can you write a lead (opening) that not only dazzles the reader, makes him curious and captures her imagination, but also faithfully represents the book as a whole?
- See the Forest, Not the Trees. Go ahead and draft chapter one anyway you can–some writers feel background stuff is necessary, others jump into a scene. Later, when you revise (meaning the whole book draft is complete) evaluate the opening for how it reflects the book as a whole. Is there something you can write that hints at the overall theme? Take a look at several of your favorite novels or memoirs. See if in the opening couple of paragraphs, you detect any hints that will reveal the theme, motif or metaphor for the book. Stories with staying power tend to be loaded with these hints (also known as promises) although you may not know it as you read for the first time. Go back to your WIP and rewrite until you have an opening that sketches out what is at stake, what the character’s goal is or the overall theme.
- Ease Into Dialogue. As a judge for a national fiction contest, I often see writers who take the “in media res” rule (start in the middle of the action) to heart. But they lead off with a line of dialogue. What’s wrong with that, you ask? If no character has been identified, the line has less meaning and actually confuses the reader. For instance, if you put a gruff male character on stage and you lead off with, “I told you she wasn’t going to show!” you know the voice is male but the reader must wait for the attribution (said the gruff captain) and then reread the line in that character’s voice. Any time you force a reader to go back, you’re asking for trouble. Put the character on stage first before you open his mouth. Even better if instead of an attribution (said) you insert a tiny character sketch. EX: The gruff captain scratched at his two-day beard stubble and tossed down his cap. “I told you she wouldn’t show!”
- Wait for the Right Time. Your lead is the first thing an agent, editor or reader sees. And it’s true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. But my advice is not to torture yourself rewriting your opening pages while you are still drafting. Over the course of writing your story, it is going to change. YOU as a writer are going to change. If you spend your time and energy polishing an opening that may change too, you’ll be (in my little opinion) liable to waste time that you could spend finishing the draft. You’ll have plenty of opportunities for revision–and once in a while the lead comes to you first and doesn’t need to change. For the rest of us, finishing the first draft is job one. Save working on that lead for a time when you can see the whole story.