Hello, friends! If you’ve somehow stumbled onto this post by some accident of Fate, welcome to Writer Wednesday and another wonderful segment where a writer–today Kiersi Burkhart!–gives us some insight into their process.
Today, Kiersi is going to talk about how to hook a reader from the very beginning of your novel, so scroll on down a bit and see what advice she has to offer!
BEGINNINGS THAT HOOK THE READER AND DON’T LET GO
There’s one universal problem writers will struggle with from the moment we embark on this enterprise that is crafting a novel:
Where does my story actually start?
As writers, we’re in love with our own worlds, our own characters, our own histories. We wouldn’t be here doing this work if we didn’t. (I certainly wouldn’t be!)
The unfortunate side effect of this love affair with our own worlds? We tend to start the story far too early, and dump all that backstory we’ve labored over onto our readers’ heads. I’m more than guilty of doing it with early drafts of my newest novel, CASTLE OF LIES (Carolrhoda Lab, 5/7/19).
The Long-Winded Opener
I know the crushing need to bring in and spin in all that lovely worldbuilding we’ve done. (Especially in fantasy novels, there’s so much lovely, detailed background and history to tell!) We want the reader brought up to speed on what happened since our last episode—i.e., SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME.
The proud fantasy writer wants their reader to know everything they know, or else how will the story make sense? Believe me when I say I know this internal struggle well.
Unfortunately, hitting your reader over the head with information slows your story’s pace to a crawl. Readers don’t connect with backstories, legends, folklore, and prologues.
Readers connect with characters and their conflicts.
We really don’t give our readers enough credit. Quite a lot of backstory can be gathered from a little smattering of context. Ideally, it’s woven in with those two most important elements: character and conflict.
The best openers are those driven heavily by action and emotion. (Action doesn’t have to be JUMPING or FIGHTING or RUNNING. Good action can mean interpersonal action, family action, perhaps just some siblings playing.) Even if the conflict is small, like two friends arguing over a personal but emotional issue, it brings the reader closer to the characters. That sense of closeness to the characters provides an ideal framework for building in your backstory.
Here’s a quick example of how to weave backstory into action- and conflict-driven openings:
“What about your brother?” Damon asks me. “Couldn’t you ask him for help scraping those few extra coins together for taxes?”
“We still haven’t heard from him.” I shake my head. “After he joined up during the war and left, we didn’t hear from him again.”
Damon’s face falls. “Oh. I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” He draws up his shoulders tight around him, like he should have known. Like he’s failed as my friend.
I put a hand on his back. “It’s not you. We didn’t tell anyone. We hoped if we didn’t say it aloud, he’d come back. Just like the King. Maybe the two of them are out there somewhere, together, still alive. Keeping each other safe.”
I doubt it as much as Mom does, but it’s still a hope we hold because anything else would be giving up. And no one can afford to give up now.
“Maybe,” Damon says. But he’s shaking his head like we both know it’s not true.
So much is set up in just a few short spurts of dialogue. There was a war; they’re too poor to pay taxes; and the King has gone missing (along with the brother). Quite a fair bit of backstory built in, and in a way that feels totally natural to the reader.
The Obtuse Opener
Then there’s the opposite problem: starting a story too late, and hoping your reader will catch up. Dropping them in at the center of the oncoming storm and expecting them not to flounder.
Sometimes this works—throwing in the reader at the deep end. But more often than not, it’s more of a turn-off, because now the reader feels left out of essential background.
One of the most popular obtuse openers is the “right in the middle of a battle” opener. We don’t know why we’re here, why this battle matters, who the main players are, or what they’re fighting for. And that can be worse for a reader than hitting them over the head with a prologue.
Relying too heavily on the conflict to get the reader excited about the story ahead can create it’s own problems. Now the reader’s been left out of the key moments leading up to this all-important battle scene, and won’t understand enough about the context to be invested. It’s like stepping into an epic movie during the climax.
A Happy Medium
Here’s my approach to crafting an opener that has a little bit of both, and what I’ve done for my weird, queer, YA fantasy, CASTLE OF LIES:
- Decide how much information—and how many characters—must be introduced in the first chapter for the story to work properly.
- Break it up into reasonable pieces (no more than two or three per scene), and then rank the importance of each character to introduce, and each tidbit of information.
- Set up the status quo! Before you dive into the big battle scene, lay down the groundwork with a quiet moment between a few pivotal characters. Let us feel the tension of the coming battle, the small conflicts between the main players, and give us just enough information to know roughly what’s going on when the battle starts.
There’s no need to douse the reader in long history lessons or private reflections on a character’s life story—a few careful droplets of important pieces here and there will paint enough of a picture that your reader’s happy to go along with you!
Kiersi Burkhart lives and works as an author and freelance writer in Wyoming. She grew up a cowgirl in Colorado and can still run the barrel race. Despite owning her own business, she manages to find time to dismantle the patriarchy and play plenty of Pokemon. She lives with her best friend, a mutt named Baby, and her partner at the foot of the mountain.