If an author wants to capture the reader’s imagination and interest, there has to be something alluring and captivating in the writing. A great book cover, regardless of what some might think, helps the reader pick up the book to see if it is something worth reading. The reader will then flip the book over to read the book blurb. If that is entertaining, the author has a shot at a sale.
However, the first line and the first paragraph draw the reader in. If the reader spends six bucks on an eBook, if the writing isn’t imaginative or interesting, the reader will set it aside. In today’s market, six bucks is nothing. An eBook costing ninety-nine cents is much less of a loss.
The author cannot afford to say, “Hey, wait until the third page or third chapter!” The reader is fairly impatient. A reader wants to be entertained now and quickly. The reader wants to get lost in the words that create a new or different world with interesting characters. If the author doesn’t provide that within the first line and the first paragraph, and then sustain that momentum as each page flips, the author and the reader both lose.
To catch a reader’s attention and imagination, the author cannot afford to go too far, however. That is, unless your name is Franz Kafka and you wrote The Metamorphosis. His opening line is, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.” Certainly, it captures the reader’s imagination, and the reader is apt to suspend his belief, if only to see where this goes.
That type of opening, I suppose, can work in fantasy. Perhaps, it can work in the dystopian genre. It doesn’t work well in my genre of thriller-crime-detective.
Let’s look at some opening lines and paragraphs from my writing and see how well, or not, I did. Here is the first paragraph of my book, Betrayed.
It was still. No breeze. The air, dead, smelled of red dirt and decay. A hawk circled overhead, cawed once, and glared at him. At least Brian thought it did. He wondered vaguely if it was an omen, a message from the spirit world George often talked about. A warning, perhaps. Fitting if it was, Brian thought. If they survived, he would ask him.
This opening might be one of my favorites of all time. It creates a picture. It puts you in a setting. It has atmosphere and a “feeling” to it.
This first paragraph is like the first kiss on a first date. The kiss tells you what the rest of the night might be like and what future dates might promise. I believe my opening of Betrayed does this for the reader. The reader has many questions popping into his or her mind. Where are they? Who is Brian? Who is George? Why is Brian wondering whether they will survive? From whom?
Here is the first paragraph of my new book, Blaze In, Blaze Out now available for preorder through my publisher, Black Rose Writing.
He sat his boney ass on the unyielding wooden bench in nearly the same spot, sometimes for up to six or seven marathon hours give or take, minus a lunch break or whenever the judge decided to give the jury a break. It wasn’t often, but it was enough.
The reader has some questions that come to mind. Who is the “he” in the paragraph? Is the “he” a good guy or a bad guy? Whose trial- the “he” or someone else?
As much as possible, I lay groundwork for the reader to keep moving forward. The reader sits in a comfy chair or couch, maybe on a patio on the back deck. But in that first paragraph of Blaze, I move that reader to a courtroom, and instead of the comfort of a chair or couch, the reader “feels” the wooden bench. We’ve all sat on one a time or two, haven’t we? All I’m doing is changing the reader’s current location to the setting of the story.
Here is the opening paragraph of the Lives Trilogy Prequel, Taking Lives.
Two Years Previous . . .
Pete slipped on a pair of blue surgical gloves and knelt down on one knee next to the ME. Summer did the same, but on the other side of the body.
In this example, I told the reader where the location is – Victorville, California. I also gave a time – Two Years Previous. But the reader has some immediate questions. Two years previous to what? Who is Pete? Who is Summer? What body? Who is dead? What happened to the body?
As much as possible, I draw the reader into the story. Much like the book cover and book blurb that catches the interest of the reader, the first paragraph has to deliver. Just like that first kiss I mentioned earlier.
A prequel is tricky, because not only am I introducing the reader to the book in the first paragraph, I am actually introducing the reader to a series, The Lives Trilogy, which consists of Stolen Lives, Shattered Lives, and Splintered Lives. If I don’t deliver in that first paragraph and in the book as a whole, the chances of the reader sticking with it and devouring each book of the series is precarious if not lost all together.
Here is what the prequel leads to in Stolen Lives, Book One of the Lives Trilogy.
Approximately Two Years Later . . .
The boy’s muscles ached and he longed to stretch out, but the handcuffs prevented him from doing so. His head hit the steel wall of the dirty van each time Frank drove over a rock or a rut or pothole in the dirt road. The boy’s neck and shoulders had grown stiff from trying to cushion the blows. He shifted sideways so that his arms could take more of the pounding, but that was even more uncomfortable. He leaned as tightly against the wall as he could, pushing with his heels, but slipped on a McDonald’s bag, frowning at the mustard and pickle juice on his pants’ leg.
In this opening paragraph, I tell you that this story takes place after the story in Taking Lives. That’s all I give you for background. But the reader wonders if this is the same kid from the ending of Taking Lives or is this a different kid? The reader wonders where they are taking the boy and why the kid is handcuffed?
With the exception of the prequel, each book of the Lives Trilogy takes place in the same summer, often in the same month. The books move quickly. Both the prequel, Taking Lives, and the second book of the trilogy, Shattered Lives, ends on a cliffhanger- sorry, but not sorry about that. The books are meant to be read together, because together, they tell the entire story.
One last example comes from my book, Spiral Into Darkness.
Vincent O’Laughlin was the youngest partner of the firm. Just four years out of grad school, he had skyrocketed up the food chain, leaving several dead bodies in his wake. Well, not actually dead. Just dead in the firm. Three of the four went on to different advertising outfits, one in Minneapolis, one in Chicago, and one in Kansas City. The fourth was still unemployed, as much to do with his age as it was his lack of creativity.
In this example, I gave you the place- Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I give you the who-Vincent O’Laughlin. I even give you what O’Laughlin does for a living. Pretty straight forward, right? But the reader has some questions. Is this guy arrogant, some know-it-all hotshot? He doesn’t care about who he steps on to get to the top? Where is this leading?
I believe it was Stephen King who wrote (paraphrasing badly) that the book begins in the author’s mind, but ends in the reader’s mind. If the opening line and the opening paragraph don’t deliver the interest and if they don’t captivate the reader’s imagination, the author loses. And, so does the reader.
Books links for your convenience:
Betrayed: A Maxy Award Runner-Up! A Literary Titan Silver Book Award Winner!
Now Available in Audio Book, Kindle and Paperback!
Blaze In, Blaze Out is available for preorder NOW and ONLY at https://www.blackrosewriting.com/mystery/blazeinblazeout. Purchase your copy prior to January 6, 2022, and receive a 15% discount. Use the promo code: PREORDER2021 .
The Lives Trilogy Prequel, Taking Lives:
Book One of the Lives Trilogy, Stolen Lives:
Spiral Into Darkness: Named a Recommended Read in the Author Shout Reader Awards!