I believe all writers share this fantasy: a customer is wandering through a bookstore and spots our book on the shelves. He pauses, picks up the book and skims the first few lines. At that moment, the world fades away and the reader falls, like Alice in Wonderland, into our fictional world. The reader keeps on reading, page after page, until he stumbles to the cash register and buys the book.
All right, we all know it’s a fantasy, but the question is a valuable one: how do we convince the reader to linger in our fictional world and keep turning the pages? Studies show that it takes the reader less than 10 seconds to decide whether to continue reading or put the book down. So how do we make the most of those 10 seconds?
Over the next few posts, I’ll cover some of the key elements, which help to create a compelling fictional world. To begin, let’s start with an obvious one:
1. Write A Powerful Opener.
You know immediately when you read a great opening line. It creates a shiver of excitement, of curiosity, of adventure. For me, it’s like walking through a door into another world:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984
Or, it’s a glimpse into someone’s mind with a unique perspective:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Or, it’s a narrative treat because the writing is powerful and masterful. Its cadence and rhythm sweep me away:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
Or, it’s an improbable situation that is mysterious and curious:
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)
Or it reveals a universal truth about the human condition:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
Even though we all can recognize great opening lines, writing one isn’t nearly as easy. I have spent more time trying to get the beginning just right, only to scrap it and start all over again. It’s a daunting task, but here are some guidelines which have helped me:
Imagine a reader is standing at a door and is squinting through the keyhole. The door is your book and the keyhole is a glimpse into your fictional world. What can the reader see through that tiny opening?
Peering through the keyhole Into my book, I could see a car and its driver. Recognizing that key element was the first step. It made me realize that the pages I had written about my fictional village of Montebello, its church and piazza, and the tailor shop where one of my main characters was sewing, were not the key elements. It was all about the car–a Fiat 514 Mille Miglia– and its driver: Benito Mussolini.
And so, I started over. I imaged the car was climbing through the Italian mountains on an unusually hot day in September. And its driver, Benito Mussolini, was tearing down the country roads, creating plumes of dust because he had a passion for speed and racing cars and was trying to impress his passenger, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. I imagined the car was approaching my fictional village of Montebello. A few men from the village would spot the clouds of dust and the car–a rare site in this poor village in 1930.
Now I was ready to create my opener, which would be the keyhole into my fictional world. And so , I wrote:
The three men from Montebello had never seen a machine so fast or so beautiful before.
That sentence worked. It established place. It identified the key element–the car. And it created some mystery. And, feedback from readers was positive. The first line was a hook which drew them into the story and made them want to read more.
And now it’s your turn. What great openers are on your top 10 list? Have you written a solid opening line? Was it challenging for you too?
In my next post, we’ll explore how a writer’s use of details is another key ingredient in creating a compelling fictional world. Until then, let’s keep writing!