This post originally appeared on Medium in February 2020. Highlights made by readers.
You know how some books stick with you for years? Perhaps it was the shocking twist at the end, or the content resonated with something you were going through at the time. Books stay with us for all kinds of reasons. But no matter the reason, it was likely that you were hooked from the first page.
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About ten years ago I read the novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall. While I don’t remember all of the details of the story, what has never left me is how the first paragraph grabbed me by the neck.
If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head. As formative events go, nothing else comes close; my careening, zigzag existence, my wounded brain and faith in God, my collisions with joy and affliction, all of it has come, in one way or another, out of that moment on a summer morning when the left rear tire of a United States postal jeep ground my tiny head into the hot gravel of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.
from The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall (Paperback, WW Norton & Co., 2012)
Now let’s talk about why it works.
1. Start in the middle of the action
Udall grabbed us with a surprising event right at the start: when Edgar was seven the mailman ran over his head. Your story might not have such a wild catalyst (I know mine doesn’t), but what Udall is doing here is starting right in the middle of the action. In the next paragraph he brings us right to that scene when the accident occurred. Starting your story in the middle of the action is a really effective way to hook your reader.
2. Weave information and backstory in as appropriate, rather than dumping it all in at the start.
It is tempting to want to dump a bunch of information in the beginning to set up the events; information such as the setting and backstory. We often feel like we need to tell the reader some things before we jump into the action. If you notice, though, Udall included quite a bit of information in this first paragraph. He told us where the action is taking place: the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, which at this point we can assume is where Edgar lives and, likely, gives us some cultural information about Edgar. So rather than just dumping that information at the start by saying something like “Edgar Mint grew up on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. He was seven years old…” Udall weaves that information into the narrative in a seamless way. Information dumps are boring, but embroidering that same information right into the action is interesting and gives us context for the action.
3. Show right away that your character is a fully-developed, three-dimensional being.
The next thing that Udall does is give us a bit of foreshadowing as to what is to come in the story. He says: “my zigzag existence, my wounded brain and faith in God, my collisions with joy and affliction…” It gives us broad concepts from the story to which we can immediately connect on a human level. We’ve all had joys and afflictions, we’ve all grappled on some level with faith, and we’ve all had some sort of zigzag in our past. What we are able to do in this first paragraph is recognize that Edgar is a three-dimensional human being with whom we are going to be able to connect on some emotional level, even if our own experiences are nothing like his. This is fabulous strategy for hooking your reader. Show them right away that your protagonist is a fully developed human, not a cardboard cutout of one.
4. Set the tone of the book from the very beginning.
Udall immediately sets the tone for his book. Though I don’t remember much of the story anymore, I do remember that when I read it I took me on an emotional roller coaster ride. There were parts that were laugh-out-loud funny, and parts that were soul-tearing. That back and forth tone is established right from the start in this first paragraph. If you can identify the overall tone of your book and incorporate it into those early paragraphs, your reader will know what to expect and, hopefully, agree to continue along on the ride.
If you are looking for another example of an opening that offers all of these same strategies, I recommend The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls.
No matter where you are in the writing process, I encourage you to go back and look at those early paragraphs through the lens of these four strategies, and see if a little tweaking can’t make them that much more engaging. Remember, a piece of writing isn’t truly finished until it’s been received and read by another person. Writing is communication between the author and the reader. Let’s make sure that the reader is hooked from the very beginning, so that they see how much your story matters.
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