Friday, August 8, 2008

First Impressions

First Impressions

© 2008 by Virginia Smith

Last year I critiqued a novel for someone I’d never worked with before. When he sent me his manuscript, he warned me in the cover letter, “It starts out a little slow, but the story really gets going in chapter 5.” I told him, “Throw away the first four chapters. Your story begins with chapter 5.”

As writers, we have only a few seconds to grab a reader’s attention and pull them into our stories. In his book, The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says of readers:

We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images…

Five words! That’s how quickly our readers begin forming impressions of our stories. Our job as fiction writers is to make the first words of our novel the best we can write. Some authors go so far as to say the first line of a book should be the best in the entire book, and they spend hours crafting the perfect opening.

You’ve probably heard the ‘bookstore shopper’ talk. Put yourself in the shoes of a reader. (And if you’re a writer, I certainly hope you’re an avid reader, too!) You go into the bookstore, scan the shelf, and pick up a book that catches your eye for one reason or another. You read the back cover to see if the story sounds interesting, and then you open it up to the first page.

Your impression of the story begins with the first sentence. If the story grabs you immediately, there’s a good possibility you’re going to buy the book. If it’s a little slow starting, you might read a paragraph or two before you make your decision. You do not, however, read half the book to see where the story really gets going. If it doesn’t engage your interest right away, you’re going to put the book back on the shelf and pick up another one.

How does a writer make a good first impression? First, let’s talk about what not to do:

Don’t start with backstory.

A common mistake of beginning writers is spending the first few pages, or even chapters, trying to give all the background. They indulge in an information dump to describe how the main character got to the point where the story starts. This doesn’t create a good first impression. Consider a story that begins with an airplane trip. Do you really want to read about the plane being fueled, the passengers filing on to find their seats, the flight attendant giving the ‘how to fasten your seatbelt’ talk, the plane rolling down the runway, gaining speed, lifting off, and finally, soaring into the clouds? Of course not. Skip the boring details! Instead, begin with the plane at 32000 feet when the main character glances out the window and notices flames shooting out of the right engine, the oxygen masks drop from above, and the lady in row three screams, “We’re all going to die!”

Don’t start with a biography.

The reader does not need to know everything about your character’s past right up front. Nor do they need a physical description immediately. Instead, consider starting with a statement that relays the character’s personality or current intriguing situation. Then you can relay those other details naturally, a few at a time, as the story unfolds.

Don’t start with a weather report.

Do you remember when Snoopy sat down at his typewriter to write the great American novel? How did he begin? It was a dark and stormy night… Starting with the weather has been done over and over, until it’s now considered cliché, and boring. Above all, you want to avoid boring your reader.

So, now that you know what not to do, how should you start your story? From our airplane illustration, we’ve seen how effective plunging the reader immediately into the story’s action can be. But what about that critical first sentence?

Introduce the character’s personality.

You don’t want to slow the story down with dull biographical details, but you may want your reader to feel drawn to your main character right up front. Angela Hunt’s Christy nominated novel, Doesn’t She Look Natural, begins with this sentence:

A grieving woman, I’ve decided, is like a crème brulee: she begins in a liquid state, endures a period of searing heat, and eventually develops a scablike crust.

That opening line grabs our interest. It makes us curious about the kind of woman who would make a statement like that. We wonder what loss she is grieving, and what the period of searing heat was for her. And it also gives us an idea of this character’s tongue-in-cheek humor, which establishes the tone of the book. A good beginning!

Set the tone.

In Crimson Eve, Brandilyn Collins starts with this piece of dialogue:

“Really, is a heinous murder any reason to devalue such a glorious piece of real estate?”

This is a totally different feeling than Hunt’s book – we immediately know we’re in for a different type of story with this one. The phrase heinous murder tells us that. We’re curious to know about the piece of real estate that was the setting of such a gruesome crime. We want to know more about the character who made this chilling statement – who could dismiss this crime so casually? It’s a good beginning!

Pique the reader’s curiosity.

One of my all-time favorite beginnings comes from C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

In that opening we’re introduced to one of the main characters, and we see right up front that we’re not going like him very much. There’s a touch of dry humor apparent in the statement that I find appealing. I’m eager to meet this boy, to find out what he could possibly have done to deserve such a horrible name. Another good beginning!

If I pick up any of those books in a bookstore, I’m hooked. I might buy the book based on that first sentence alone. If not, I’m at least going to keep reading to see if the rest of the writing appeals to me. But that first sentence has served its purpose – it has snagged my interest.

Spend some time on your opening. Consider the tone, the character, the feeling you want to relay to your reader right off the bat. First impressions do count!

Virginia Smith left her twenty-year career as a corporate director to become a full time writer and speaker with the release of her first novel Just As I Am. Earlier this year she was honored to be named Writer of the Year at Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference. She writes mystery/suspense novels, such as her upcoming A Taste of Murder, as well as humorous heart-touching stories like Stuck in the Middle and Sincerely, Mayla. Visit her website at

No comments: