A great deal has been written about openings. Without question they are important. The opening is the first impression. It creates a story promise. It poses questions that need answers. It pulls us into a story world. It sets events in motion or at least establishes a mood. We meet a voice, sense the story’s purpose, get a hint of its meaning and generally settle into the flow of something already moving.
In short, we are intrigued. Indeed, most advice about openings is geared toward enhancing our curiosity. Ray Rahmey’s first page checklist, posted here monthly, is an excellent yardstick for measuring what makes openings interesting. Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages is a detailed discussion of what makes openings uninteresting, listing in order of importance the reasons why agents dismiss manuscripts and suggesting what you can do avoid that. The term “narrative hook” has its own Wikipedia entry.
It’s pretty hard not to get the idea. The first job of an opening is to intrigue.
Or is it?
Research psychology has some interesting things to tell us about why people seek out entertainment and what gets them involved in it. To us it’s obvious why we need stories and why they appeal. To scientists it’s a great puzzle. Why do people get caught up in events which they know cannot be real? What causes people to feel strongly about fictional characters, argue with them and even re-imagine their outcomes?
Yes, scientists really study this stuff. Seeking out a story to experience shows to scientists what they call to “intentional motivation”. The processing of a story then involves “sensory memory”, “working memory”, an “episode buffer” and finally retention in “long term memory” (LTM). While we speak of hunts and campfires, scientists posit “Attribution Theory”, “Cognitive-Experiential Self Theory”, “Cultivation Theory”, “Social Judgment Theory” and “Thematic Compensation Hypothesis”.
Being caught up in a story excites scientists to terms like “transportation”, “anticipatory empathy” and “counterfactual thinking”. Most significant of all is the reason that readers sink into a story at all: “Disposition Theory”.
I’ll save you some time. Here’s what all that means… [Read more…]