Starting a novel or short story is like making a promise to the reader. You set up rules and expectations that your readers will rely on as they read your piece. You take your readers by the hand and guide them into your story. You develop a trust-relationship with the reader.
Delaying or changing these elements on your reader will create tension. While that might get the reader’s attention, it will also mean you’ll have to work that much harder to gain back the reader’s trust during the rest of the story. Here are the five essential promises you make to your reader right at the beginning of your piece. Most writers will fulfill these promises within the first five pages of a novel (or five paragraphs, in a short story).
1) You promise a character.
From the start your readers will want to know who they’re supposed to root for. Sometimes writers will artfully delay the appearance of the main character in order to create anticipation or to reflect the character’s personality, but this is very unusual. In most cases, the protagonist usually appears in the first chapter, and is often the very first character the reader sees.
A great example of a delayed main character from children’s literature is The Wainscott Weasel by Tor Seidler, in which the protagonist does not appear at all in the first chapter. Another example, of course, is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, in which Elizabeth’s ultimate love interest–Mr. Darcy–doesn’t appear until well into the story. In the case of both books, these characters are introverted and shy. By holding the characters back and making the reader wait for them, the authors show us this facet of their personalities.
2) You promise the voice.
The voice of the narration is central to establishing the mood of the story. Compare the opening sentences to the following novels and notice the different moods that they convey.
“Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.”
~Gayle Forman, If I Stay
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to totally suck.”
~M.T. Anderson, Feed
“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
Point of view is also central to the voice and mood. Notice that in the three above examples, all of the narrators were in the first person, which allows us to hear the character’s voice directly. There are other scenarios where the narrator is not the protagonist, but the voice of the protagonist still comes through loud and clear in dialogue. And, of course, there are instances when the narrator herself has a distinct and unique voice, as in this example.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
~Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
The ironic tone of this opening line shows us right away that this is no passive narrator. She’s spunky and has as much spark and wit as the protagonist.
3) You promise the world.
Promise the world? As in the whole world? It might sound huge but it’s not just any world you’re promising, it’s your world, the world of your book. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing, you have to let the reader into your world and it must feel real. This applies whether you’re writing a contemporary story set in a average suburb, or some elaborate fantasy story set in another dimension. The reader needs to believe in your world and the best way for you to make that happen is for you to believe in it yourself.
Another thing to remember about promising your world is that when it comes to detail, a little goes a long way. Writers are often tempted to give as much detail about setting as possible, thinking that the more details they share the more real the world will become. This is especially true for fantasy stories, where the writer may worry that the reader won’t “get” the setting if they don’t describe every last inch.
The truth is, readers are smart and often a few well-placed details will carry more weight than long passages of description. Just as readers trust the writer to give them a world that feels real, the writer must trust the readers to suspend their disbelief and invest in that world.
4) You promise a problem.
From the first page, your reader has to know that there’s a problem the character is facing. Whether that problem is explicit (like the family’s financial state in Pride and Prejudice) or a mystery (like in If I Stay) we know from the first moment that the character is facing some difficulty, some problem. This promise is essential because whatever this problem is, it will be crucial in establishing the central conflict for your story.
Note that while this problem that appears early in the story does not necessarily have to be the central conflict. In Pride and Prejudice, the initial problem is the family’s financial situation, but as we read on we discover that the central conflict actually lies in the relationship between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and that initial problem merely contributes to the conflict. The initial financial problem sets events in motion and eventually we discover the central conflict. After all, if the Bennet family were not in such a serious financial position, Mrs. Bennet would not have pushed her daughters to meet husbands and most likely Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy would not have been thrown together, thus leading to their romance.
5) You promise an event.
Every book or story opens with some sort of event that kick-starts the story. In If I Stay, the event is huge and turns the characters’ lives upside-down. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden leaves boarding school and that sets off the chain of events from where the story unfolds. In Feed, we start by going to the moon to have fun and the story unravels from there. In Pride and Prejudice, the wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingly moves to the neighborhood, raising all sorts of gossip among the neighbors. Whether the event simply nudges the story into motion or gives it a sharp shove, there must be an event early on that gets the story started.
Your reader will be waiting for that event, so as a writer you need to follow through. If you delay that event for too long, your reader might lose interest or, worse yet, stop reading altogether. The sooner you set your story in motion, the sooner you can hook your reader.
In the end, it all comes down to building a level of trust with your reader. When you deliver on these promises, you’re showing your readers that they are in good hands and that you know what you’re doing. Then when you take risks in your writing with an artful purpose, you’re also letting the readers know that you trust them as well. Ultimately, the reader-writer relationship is one of trust. Readers trust writers not to go back on their promises or play tricks on them and writers must trust readers to be smart and understand what they’re doing.