Ebook samples are a great way to hook readers and get them interested in your story. But how can you make sure your first chapter entices readers enough to buy your book? One method is to create an “opening disturbance.” James Scott Bell, a bestselling thriller author and author of Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure agreed to share his tips on using this method to hook readers early.
One of the great online boons to book lovers is the ability to view a sample of a book before purchasing it. On Amazon, users can download the first ten percent of a book for free or read it onsite via the “Look Inside” feature. As an author, this gives you the opportunity to score a sale if you make the reader want to read on.
So what should these opening pages do? You’ve no doubt heard it expressed like this:
- Hook the reader.
- Grab the reader.
- Entice the reader.
- Get the reader to turn the page.
Nothing wrong with those terms, but the real question is: How do you make this happen?
Step 1: Create a disturbance
Use an opening disturbance in the first paragraph. A disturbance is anything that is different in the character’s “ordinary world.” This can be a portent, change, shift, challenge, trouble, danger, or another character.
A disturbance can be relatively quiet, or big and full of action. It can be an email or a monster. A doorbell or a gunshot. Tires squealing or a child crying. It can be virtually anything that causes a ripple in the character’s life.
John le Carré, the great spy novelist, put it this way: “I think as a rough principle I always begin with one character and then perhaps two, and they seem to be in conflict with each other. The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.”
The opening disturbance works with any kind of book. Take a look at the following two openings. The first is a genre classic, the second a literary novel.
They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
– The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Tina Antonelli stared at the heavy, cream-colored invitation like it was a loose diamond she’d unearthed in the sandbox at the neighborhood playground. No, it was even more valuable than a diamond, she decided as she leaned against her kitchen counter and felt her nightgown-clad hip squish into something. Grape jelly, she thought absently, recalling her early-morning frenzy of sandwich making for school lunches. She reread the first line of calligraphy: Please join us in celebrating Dwight’s 35th birthday!
– The Best of Us by Sarah Pekkanen
Cain starts with a character in obvious physical distress. Pekkanen gives us something relatively quiet. But both are changes in the protagonist’s ordinary world. Between those two poles are limitless possibilities for an opening disturbance.
Step 2: Put that disturbance in your opening line or paragraph.
Dean Koontz used to have single-line openings packed with imminent trouble:
Penny Dawson woke and heard something moving furtively in the dark bedroom.
Even before the events in the supermarket, Jim Ironheart should have known trouble was coming.
The “kicker” of the disturbance can be placed at the end of the opening paragraph, as Harlan Coben does in Promise Me:
The missing girl – there had been unceasing news reports, always flashing to that achingly ordinary school portrait of the vanished teen, you know the one, with the rainbow–swirl background, the girl’s hair too straight, her smile too self–conscious, then a quick cut to the worried parents on the front lawn, microphones surrounding them, Mom silently tearful, Dad reading a statement with quivering lip – that girl, that missing girl, had just walked past Edna Skylar.
Step 3: Reveal the consequences of the disturbance
Now have your opening scene play out the consequences of this disturbance. As you do, be careful to avoid a backstory dump. Don’t let too much explanatory material bog down the action. Sometimes a writer thinks the reader has to know everything about the background of a character before moving on, but they don’t. Readers will wait a long time for exposition if they’re intrigued by a character caught up in trouble.
A little bit of backstory is fine, but layer it in sparingly. Withhold as much as you can to create a mystery, another reason readers will want to see more — and click the buy button to get it.
When should you work on your opening disturbance?
The best time to work on your opening is after you’ve completed a draft of your novel. You know so much more about your story at that point that you can come back to the beginning and cut out what isn’t needed.
A little trick that often works wonders is the “Chapter Two Switcheroo.” Just toss out Chapter One and begin with Chapter Two. Usually you’ll be amazed at how much faster your story begins, and how much information from Chapter One you can withhold until later.
Mickey Spillane, the famous hard-boiled novelist, once said, “The first page of a book sells that book. The last page sells your next book.” Good, solid sampling will get your book sold. Then it’s up to you to leave the reader wanting more.
What is the best opening disturbance you’ve read recently that convinced you to buy the book? Let us know in the comments below!
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