Intros that grab you and don’t let go

One quick reminder before we get started, this month’s writing contest ends tomorrow night.  If you want to get a story submission in, please do so before then.  The countdown clock at the top right section of this blog will begin to count down the hours after there is less than one day.  I did this to help those in different time zones see how much time they have left.  As of now, there are only two eligible entries, so your chances of winning are high if you write something great.  Now, on to the topic of this blog…

Back a few weeks ago we discussed what made us keep reading some books we loaded on our eReaders while passing on others.  This was mostly in reference to the free books we acquired, but the same can be said of any novel.  Many discerning readers will load a sample first to see if the novel grabs their attention before deciding to purchase.  The first few pages can really set the tone and showcase the writer’s style.  While your entire novel should receive special care before publishing, the intro needs to “pop”.

If you are having a tough time on sales, this could be part of the reason.  Maybe it looks good to you, but it may not be for others.  Writers become close to their work and can become blind to it.  I say this from experience.  With my own WIP, I’ve had to revise the intro more than a dozen times (some small tweaks, others larger).  The latest was a complete overhaul of the first few pages because I was told by my latest beta reader that it needed work.  It wasn’t grabbing her.  She gave some helpful advice on what would help and I also did quite a bit of research to see what various writing guides and bloggers (with writing tips) said.  It really clicked for me where I had gone wrong in my work and now there is a much improved version.  If you are like me, you learn best after you make mistakes.

Now I want to pass along some of the tips I’ve found for you to consider when looking at your own intro. These can actually be applied throughout a novel, and especially in chapter intros, but today we’ll focus on the very beginning of the story.  I’ll give some various examples I’ve found around the web that were useful in showing me how to grab a reader from the first line.  The quote below (formatted in a different font) is from an informative article that is well worth checking out.  I’ll post a couple of the points they made so you can get a taste:

Pack the First Line of a Story with Emotion One more way to start a story is to begin with raw emotions, the stronger the feelings the better.

  • “I cannot believe I am standing in the exact spot where I was standing when I killed my mother.” No Place Like Home, by Mary Higgins Clark.

It’s practically impossible to stop reading after an opening such as this one. It puts a whammy of emotion center stage, and raises questions that beg to be answered. The tension in the scene is what will keep the reader engaged in the story. Show a Main Character’s Attitude or Quirk in the First Line If a character has a quirky outlook on life, or an attitude that can’t be ignored, it can create a compelling opening. It will make the reader want to know more about that character.

  • “By the time she was eight, Mackensie Elliot had been married fourteen times.” Vision in White, by Nora Roberts, Book One in the Bride Quartet.

This unusual fact about the main character draws the reader into the story. The author will need to have highly developed characters before writing this type of story beginning.


If you’re like me, the examples above grabbed your attention.  It’s not easy to come up with lines like that, but you can be pondering this the whole time you’re writing the novel (as well as during the revision stage).  Put something there to start and keep in mind you can go back and replace it later.

The following are some other various tips I found.  I’ll link the sites in case you would like to read the full articles they came from:

Keep it simple. Many beginning authors overwrite their openings—and their fiction in general—thinking impressive, flowery words or numerous adjectives make their writing better or more literary. The American Book Review’s top one hundred opening lines all incorporate simple, clean language to invoke an emotion in the reader. Craft straightforward sentences that shed light on your characters and your story’s themes. Being a feeling writer is more crucial to good fiction than trying to be a genius writer.

-These are a few of the many tips provided by one blogger who got them from an e-book editor and publisher.  I won’t list them all, but I would recommend checking the rest of them out when you have time:

  •  Too much data.  “You’re trying to seduce your reader, not burden them,” Friedman said.

  • Over-writing, or “trying too hard”.  “We think the more description we add, the more vivid it will be; but we don’t want to be distracted from the story” we open the book for.

  • Starting with backstory, or “going back, then going forward.”

  • Info dump.  More formally called “exposition.”

  • Character dump, which is four or more characters on the first page.

-Another good site with  numerous tips for consideration had the following points:

  • Many writers present an elaborate description of the character, down to how long their fingernails are, what they eat for breakfast, and whether they blink their eyes too often. We get lists of traits, descriptions of clothing, the way they walk, and so forth. Show us the character by putting him or her into a situation and watching what happens. True depth of character comes out when the character has to make difficult choices.

  • The first chapter is where we set the scene, introduce the main character, show the main character’s life as it is now, and show the incident that changes everything. If you use it for back story, descriptions, and scene setting, you will bore the reader. Most importantly, something must happen by the end of that chapter.

  • Many beginners think that the reader has to know every juicy detail about the character’s past. Not true! Your job as a novelist is to keep the reader reading. You do that by withholding information, not overwhelming us with it. If you break the action every few minutes with back story, you will turn off your audience. Work in the back story where needed but don’t stop the action to do so.

-Some more great advice to follow from a post about how to keep out of the rejection pile:

Find the action in a scene, a place where change is imminent, and pull the reader into the story with a strong hook. For instance, Earl Emerson’s 1988 mystery, Fat Tuesday, began with this compelling opener:

“I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper bag only complicated matters.”

On the flip side, how often have you read a strong opening page only to have the rest of the chapter fall flat, like someone let the air out of the tires? The writing should be consistently intriguing to sustain the reader’s interest throughout, not just on the first page or at the end of a chapter.

Hopefully, the above examples and advice will give you some food for thought on your own writing.  I’m sure even experienced authors can always use a little refresher every once in a while.  One thing I’m considering for this blog is accepting story intros to be critiqued in a blog post.  I’ve seen where others have done this and it’s been very helpful.  Everyone can contribute on what things work and what needs improvement.  It wouldn’t just be me.  This idea can be used for scene openers or short sections where you aren’t sure if you’re conveying the right idea or visual.

If I am going to do this, though, I need feedback from you all as to whether you would be receptive.  Please leave a comment here so I have some idea of whether there would be participation or not.  Should there be a great enough response, I’ll invite volunteers who want their work critiqued send me an email with their sample.  I’d be willing to allow word counts of up to 1000.  It could be helpful for everyone if we can learn from each other.

~ by Suzie on May 29, 2012.

16 Responses to “Intros that grab you and don’t let go”

  1. Very useful post! Thanks Susan.
    As an aside; maybe I’m just a bit of an odd-ball but, whilst I wholeheartedly agree that it’s really vital to study what works and doesn’t work from other writers and commentators, I get a little nervous of trying to be too clinical/technical in my approach… I think we, especially as Indie writers, also need to be brave and prepared to have a stab at something new. Come at readers from their blind-side. Get their imaginations flowing… Risky: true. But perhaps that’s not a bad thing?
    p.s. I completely re-wrote my first Chapter several times as well… know exactly where you are! 🙂 And, am really looking forward to seeing your book!

    • I don’t disagree with trying new methods, but no matter what you do, you have to grab reader attention. I’m fairly certain boring a reader to death has been done many times and usually doesn’t work. So at the very least getting that hook in has to be a big focus. I read a lot of action packed Urban Fantasy. It’s the stuff that gets my attention. Since I’m writing that genre and targeting readers who follow it, I need to figure out ways that will compel them to check out my work and keep reading from there. One thing I will say about the UF crowd is they’re a loyal bunch of folk if they like your series (UF is almost always set in a series).

      For instance, every year around this time there is something called the Alpha Showdown on the vampire Book Club site. Main characters for about 15-20 series get nominated by other bloggers dealing in the paranormal. Then each day for a couple weeks they set these characters against each other in a battle where fans vote for who would win the fight. At the end one character comes out the overall winner over all the others (big honor for the author). The amazing thing is how many people have read nearly every single one of these series and love them all, despite them having many differences. You’ll see comments where they groan about having to choose between favorites and long debates over why one would win over the other. The next best thing is you find the odd series get nominated that you’ve never heard of, but others have. It helps you discover new stuff and most of the time you like it.

      The thing is, there aren’t nearly enough “good” series in the genre. Most UF fans must go months waiting on new releases at times. They are always looking for something to fill the gap. Unfortunately, publishers spout some nonsense that it’s over crowded, which isn’t true. It’s just that sometimes they put out crap series no one likes and then just assume people are getting tired of it. In reality, the fans of the genre want more, it’s just that not all authors can write what people want. Believe me, when a new one comes along that grabs attention, you see UF fans everywhere blogging and talking about it. My goal is to be one of the people who gives them that. I want my book to be as well written as possible.

      I also have to consider that I can’t self pub. After careful research, I realized it would cost me at least $2500 to put just the first book of my series out. Then there would be the same cost for every one after that. There is no way I can afford it and I won’t skimp on having both line edits and proofreading done by professional editors. Badly edited books drive me crazy and I’m not good enough to do the work on my own.. Then there is the cover and the kind I want will cost. So my only option is to at least get a small publisher to put it out. That means meeting certain standards so they will even consider me. Aside from all that, though, studying writing tips has improved my work greatly. I like it better and even find my “voice” coming out more. There is something fun about challenging myself to make each scene, line of dialog, and setting better. The story is steadily shaping into something I can be proud of. Even if it never sells, though, I’ll know I did my best. To me, that counts for something.

      • Good points – one and all…
        The only one of your observations that I’d suggest thinking about for longer is self-pub (ePub, not self-print) and professional editing. I’m reading a James Rollins at the moment… full of editing errors. The last book I read was a C.J.Box… same problem. I think one of your other visitors made a really valid point (apologies, but I can’t remember his/her name) on your Reviews Post (#1) when they said that, as writers, we all become much more technically detailed copy-readers/editors. I’ve seen myself that I’ve become much, much, more critical of typos than the vast majority of our audiences.
        Anyway, it was still a great post, Susan. I’ve used more than a few of your observations and soundbites during my last editing exercise. Cheers!

        • Glad the suggestions helped in some way.

          As for my self-editing, it’s severely lacking. I’m always amazed I don’t come out sounding like an eight year old on these blog posts, lol. Then again, maybe I do and people are just too nice to tell me. One woman who rebuked me for a review wrote said she trusted her dog’s opinion over mine…admittedly, I did find that kind of funny.

  2. Ah, thank God, some sense! I’ve been working on the beginning for my WIP for the past couple weeks inbetween good days, so I feel your pain. Wonderful post, as I’m beginning to expect.

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