An agent once told me that she reads the first sentence of a manuscript. If she likes it, she reads the second, then the third. If she finishes the manuscript, she signs it up.
I suspect most readers are willing to give you a little more leeway than that, but there’s a reason so many workshops, online discussions, articles, and writing books focus on your hook – your first five pages, your opening page, even your first paragraph. Most readers buy books because they know what they’ll be getting. Writers with an established reputation can take their time getting into their stories because they know their readers will stick with them until the story’s underway. But if you’re just starting out, readers are less likely to trust you for a chapter or two. Those opening paragraphs may be the only chance you get to suck them into your fictional world.
But obsessing over your opening paragraphs carries its own risks. You may try to pack so much tension, so much hook into your opening that you wind up writing page one in a voice that doesn’t match page two. Many years ago, I worked with a client who was trying so hard to impress her readers with her hook that her first few pages were unreadably self-conscious. She didn’t settle down to clear prose until about page 10.
Or you could wind up with a brilliant, precisely-crafted, exciting hook that’s not actually part of your story. Years ago, I edited a novel about a Viet Nam nurse that opened with the high drama of a field hospital, then followed her career through the war. Thing is, the main story was less about the nurse’s battlefield experience as about how it affected her when she returned home. Opening in Nam delayed the start of the story for a hundred pages or so, until the writer managed to get the nurse back to the States. In her next draft, the nurse had a flashback-induced panic attack while she was giving birth and wound up huddled under her hospital bed, and things went on from there. It was not quite as exciting as the battlefield, but it pulled readers straight into the story. [Read more…]