Remember the musical number from Gypsy, “Gotta Get a Gimmick”? The strippers advised Gypsy Rose Lee that to be successful, she’d need a gimmick, something eye-catching that would grab the attention of audience members. Writers likewise need attention-attracting elements to steer the focus of their readers to the story in their hands (and keep it there). Books compete with TV, computers, movies, hand-held devices and who-knows-what-else for attention. If your book’s opening doesn’t capture the reader, doesn’t draw her into your tale, you’re going to lose them.
So, how do you entice your reader to stay with your book? You hook them, engage them with an incident from the life of your lead character. You don’t need to shoot someone or blow up a building and have your lead save someone from burning to death (even though those scenes work for action movies), but you do need to make the reader pay attention. Consider events from your own life. When you get home at night, do you tell your spouse about the ordinary moments from your day or do you share those stand-out moments? I’m guessing it’s the departure from the normal that you share. You may even embellish the events or the emotions to make those moments more involving for your spouse.
That’s the same kind of incident you want to start with to open your novel. Only, you don’t want to report the incident later in the day. You want to drop your reader into the action while it’s happening so she gets a real-time experience. Let her feel the emotions. Get her interested, as if she were the character going through the incident. Not so much a gimmick, then, but a proven technique to plop the reader into the action. This is the time for showing, not telling. This is the time for action or emotion or dialogue to move front and center and for description and exposition and back story to move out of the frame.
Open with dialogue—an exchange that sets up the events to follow or dumps us straight into a character’s motivation. Open with action. A character on the phone, a character in a bed (alone) and thinking on her life, a character driving alone at night (and thinking on her life), a character wandering the woods (alone and thinking on her life), is not the most exciting starting place for a story. Open with an incident that displays character motivation, even if the incident itself is not the focal point of the story.
Can a story successfully open with description or a character’s thoughts? Of course. Anything can work for a competent writer. But remember your competition—why handicap your story from the start? Give your reader something interesting and engaging. Give them something they won’t find in their own world. Or, take something they would find in their everyday world and twist it, shocking them with the unexpected. Hook your readers. Compel them into your story. Make them want to start the first chapter. And keep drawing them deeper with each word, each paragraph, each scene.
Give them characters they can identify with (or hate). Engage their emotions. Give them an imaginary world they can play in, where they can become a character who saves the world or loses a marriage or outwits the police, the bad guys, and a despised older brother.
Create an irresistible opening scene, one the reader can’t escape from. Make it alluring. Compelling. Intriguing. Make him want to enter. This is fiction—use what you know about human behavior and motivation to intrigue your reader. Entice and entertain, the same way you do with someone when you’re talking about your day. Write something that will grab the eyes, mind, and imagination of your readers.