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…
First of all, some support for intrigue: To entertain, a story must present novelty, challenge and/or aesthetic value. A story causes in readers what psychologists call “cognitive evaluation”, which in plain English means having to think, guess, question and compare. Making us think as we read not only makes a story intriguing, medically speaking it’s necessary for our well-being and mental health.
Put simply, to be healthy we humans have to experience wonder. It’s one of the reasons that reading stories feels necessary. It actually is.[pullquote]To be healthy we humans have to experience wonder. It’s one of the reasons that reading stories feels necessary. It actually is.[/pullquote]
Having to think about a story also increases its chances of making it into long term memory. That’s because the more we cause readers to chew on a story the longer it churns in working memory, and that in turn keeps open the passageway into long-term memory. Force the reader to figure something out. Take the reader aback. Make the reader decide something. Insight, new information, surprise and/or moral challenge all excite cognition, or what we regular folk call pondering.
But hold on. Intrigue is not all that it takes. Something else is needed if readers are going to sink into a story.
Here it is: Readers want an emotional experience. They want to feel something, not about the story but about themselves. While reading, they want a sense of play. They want to anticipate, guess, think and judge, yes, but equally they want to emerge from reading a story feeling competent, like they have been through something and, most importantly, as if they’ve connected with a story’s characters, living their fictional experience.
Creating that “as if” experience takes more than just walking readers through the plot. Readers own a story only when they have felt it. Feeling can be provoked by plot developments, obviously, but only to a limited extent. Plot twists and turns mostly cause surprise. That’s fine as far as it goes, but a deeper bond and empathy is generated not by plot events but by something that readers feel for the characters about whom they’re reading.
That something comes about when readers are able to make immediate, positive moral judgments about characters, which is to say when they see something good in them. Psychologists call this “affective disposition”. We call it liking, or more precisely admiring. It’s why novelists in various ways make their characters appealing. It’s why screenwriters save the cat.
This need to feel for characters explains some puzzling things about fiction. For instance, why is that thriller writers must keep their characters in jeopardy and constantly running in order to keep us going, whereas romance writers can churn a single-note plot conflict (I love you/I resist you) over and over again, with no discernable plot movement, and nevertheless create an absorbing and dynamic story experience?
In a sense, thrillers and romances exist at opposite ends of a spectrum: pure intrigue at one end, pure emotional involvement at the other. The most effective combination to produce reader involvement, however, is equal doses of both. When plot hook and emotional hook happen together they work together. Intrigue opens readers to emotional connection; emotional connection magnifies what in a story world causes readers to marvel, question and wonder.
The best openings, then, create both intrigue and involvement. As readers we think but also feel. So how do we make that one-two punch happen?[pullquote]The best openings create both intrigue and involvement.[/pullquote]
Plot hooks don’t worry me. Most manuscripts have those. What many do not have are emotional hooks, meaning a simple reason to care about a character—which is to say apprehend something good about them—as soon as we meet. Readers pick up cues and form their positive/negative judgments almost instantaneously, so it is literally true that we must accomplish this bonding on page one.
What, then, do we perceive as “good”? The answer varies by reader but generally characters who are the most universally appealing quickly model for us what we might call heart values. Compassion, insight, a commitment to justice, family, love, steadfastness, sacrifice, selflessness and other virtues will always hook readers faster and more surely than survival, striving for success, desiring fame, alienation or aloneness.
Genre writers may find this focus on the warmness and fuzziness of characters counter-intuitive. Science fiction and fantasy writers, for instance, know that their readers love to quickly immerse in worlds with different rules. Thriller writers know that establishing a mood of menace is job number one.
Heck, no matter what kind of fiction you write everyone knows that you’ve got to hit your protagonist right away with a question or a need, if not an outright problem. How are you supposed to go all warm and fuzzy while you’re slamming your protagonist in the face with a baseball bat?
Well, that is exactly the kind of two-handed legerdemain that great openings pull off. Consider the opening of The Hunger Games. On the face of it, it’s a rule-breaker: a waking-up-in-the-morning opening. But it’s so much more:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Whoa, wait, what–? The reaping? What kind of Shirley Jackson nightmare is this? That right there is the intrigue part. The emotional engagement part is what happens before that bombshell. What does Katniss Everdeen do as soon as she wakes? Whom does she reach for and care about? Her sister, Prim. Right away we know that Katniss has a heart.
The opening of To Kill a Mockingbird is also a rule-breaker, a low-tension back story framework passage that dwells on an insignificant detail. Or does it–?
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading up to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
Uh…excuse me? Boo Radley? You had me at the character named Dill, but Boo–? Okay, I’m hooked. Or at any rate, hooked enough to keep me going for a spell.
But what about the emotional hook? This is a little tougher to identify, but I would say that once again it’s family. The narrator, Scout, cares enough about her brother to be concerned whether his broken arm will affect his self-esteem. (Not at all, she tells us reassuringly.) She also gives due respect to his opinion on the origin of “the events leading up to his accident”. Scout is looking back from a distance of some years but because she remains close to her brother we know that it’s safe to immediately feel close to her.
Family is a durable way to create warmth in a main character, but of course it’s not the only way. Check your shelves, you’ll see that in engaging openings qualities of strength, humor, humanity and goodness find a way to glimmer just a little in any novel that gets its double hooks into you. So how can you get those hooks into your own readers?
It’s a simple process to describe but a little harder to pull off. Nevertheless, wouldn’t you say that Suzanne Collins and Harper Lee’s openings suggest that it’s worth a try? Here are the two steps:
- As your novel opens, find something warm and human that your main character cares about. If your story is exotic, choose something we would care about in the here and now. If your story has an ordinary setting, find something about which your protagonist is passionate. Open with this feeling.
- Now find in your opening situation something different, odd, curious, puzzling, weird, contradictory or hard to explain. Highlight it. Don’t pile on more or explain too much too soon. Let the mystery posed or question raised work on your reader for a bit. Don’t worry. Your reader won’t mind.
That’s it. It’s funny that something that sounds so simple is lacking in so many novels. I think that’s because intrigue gets all the attention. Involvement is just as important, though, and the best beginning of all is one that delivers both.
How are you creating both intrigue and involvement in your opening? Care to share your opening paragraph or two with us?
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