How to Catch A Reader

I’ve judged innumerable contests and read for a couple of magazines.  Nine times out of ten, when a story fails to grab me, it’s because the beginning is fuzzy and we hit page 10 and I’m still trying to figure who I’m going to follow around and whose story this is.

I was reminded of this today because we were talking at the dinner table (well, we all write, you know) of spaceships maneuvering in space, and how fascinating it can look visually, but how a friend who presented a manuscript to our writers’ group went on for five? Ten pages? Describing a spaceship docking in minute detail when we had no reason to care.  I took a little nap with my eyes open, I confess.  There were no people in sight, no real worldbuilding beyond “oh, look, spaceships.”  Just… things moving around in space.  Okay then.

This could be an effective opening for someone with a long running series.  Say, David Weber.  Have ships we care about, and we’ll be spellbound, but that’s because we already know those people and they already matter to us.

However, out of the blue and cold?  Noooooo.

Let’s imagine my book Darkship Thieves was made into a movie.  Yeah, I know.  But picture it in your mind.

Camera panning surface of the Earth with artificial isles.  Then off to space, at speed, then pan the power trees, and near it, the spaceship.

Inside, as Athena wakes.

Now let’s talk about why those shots – likely shown while the “front titles” whatever they’re called by normal human beings – are there.

They’re there, because, in those moments when your husband – well my husband – is going “ooh, he’s the producer?  He hasn’t done anything since—”  Or “Oh, this is based on a book by that chick Sarah Hoyt?  If I knew, I wouldn’t have come.” You’re absorbing the gist of the images.  Maybe not the details, but enough to go”ooh, futuristic tech, so far in future” and “coolness and all, there’s something glowy in space, I wonder what it is.”  And then “Space vehicle of some sort” Pan inside, chick sits up grabs blanket, attacks someone in the dark, and runs, and you know you found your character, and this is when the words stop flashing on the screen and—

The story has begun.

When I was starting to mentor people, I was told that most beginning writers start the story ten to fifty pages too early.  I didn’t believe it, since my invariable habit is starting the story too late, and then having to backtrack to find the real exciting part.

But when I started to see beginning writers born and raised in the US, particularly those who are younger than I, I started seeing exactly that.

It took me the longest time to figure out what they were actually doing was “panning in.”

I regret to inform you there is no similar mechanism.  Oh, sure, you can half half a page or so of introductory taste – Terry Pratchett often does it – but you’d better make sure that you’re very, very amusing, not just showing us the warm-up in general images.

See, the difference between a book and a movie is this: a book is an art of interior narration.  When you’re reading, the story doesn’t take place in front of your eyes but in the space behind your skull, where you live.

Perhaps because of that, in most cases (yes, there are some exceptions, mostly in stories that are about the situation or the “things” than about an individual person.  I have trouble following them – as much in movies as in books – but some people like them) readers want to attach to a person, and to experience the story from the POV of a person (or at least a person at a time.  Romance has ricocheting POVs and the fields I work in can alternate POVs in different chapters r sections, but) you home in on a person first, in the beginning and you know that person will be important to the story.

If you fail to home in properly, you already lost a portion of your audience.  In the example above, of a beginning of a movie, you can pan past people swimming or construction workers, but provided you focus more on the structures, people know these aren’t the heroes.

There is no way to do that in a book.

So, in the hopes of helping any of you who might be tempted to have a graceful ballet of unnamed spaceships in the vasty deep, here goes:


1-      Make it about about someone.  This might turn out not to be the main character, but it should be an interesting enough character to draw us into the story.  (Usually when it’s not the main character or one of them, it’s someone who dies by the end of this section.  Yes, I’m thinking of thrillers and certain mysteries.)

2-      Give us at least a general description of the someone and his/her surroundings.  This is called “situating.”  “Jane, a middle-aged spinster with bright blue eyes sat at the desk in the library.”

3-      Give us a problem.  Either a problem the character is aware of or, in case of impersonal narration, particularly as set up scene for a mystery, something he/she isn’t.  “She was trying to read the fascinating book she’d found buried in the garden by the light of the fire.  In her abstraction, she didn’t hear the footsteps behind her.”

4-      Throw your worldbuilding – where? When? – in relation to us – our place and time – in as early as possible.  This doesn’t have to be a huge infodump.  “The buttler’s throat clearing caused Jane to jump half out of her skin, but Smith looked quite proper as he said, “It’s the housekeeper, ma’am.  As she couldn’t find the fish you so particularly wanted for dinner with your cousin tonight.  These war time restrictions—”

5-      To really hook us use all five senses in the first page, and then try not to go more than a few pages without evoking them all.  “Jane smelled the wood burning, but it seemed to give off very little heat.  Maybe that was why she felt a cold shiver up her spine.  She hoped Mrs. Jones would hurry tea and make some of her exquisite creamy scones.”

6-      Give us some inkling of what is at stake.  And make it something big enough to carry the book.  “Really, finding the book buried had been so very odd.  She wondered if it contained hints of what had happened to Uncle Gregory before he’d become a brain-eating zombie.”

7-      Clean up your sentence structure, and make sure that your line of reasoning is perfectly clean.  Look, I have been known to meander.  Or sometimes just wonder.  But in the beginning you can’t do that.  If you’re talking about Jane and take a break to describe the frost patterns on the window, then the roses in a vase, I’m going to be yawning and wondering when Jane comes back.

8-      Make us care – give us a reason to be following this particular person around.  It can be a simple reason… You might know he’s going to throw his boss out of an office-building window.  Because he told you in the first paragraph.  Or it might be pity – the beginning of Harry Potter with the “poor orphan boy” opening – or it may be that interesting things are happening to this person…  Or it may be they’re crawling through a trail of blood to find the person they love the most in the world.  Doesn’t matter.  You just have to give them something the rest of us think is important, whether it’s life and death or, depending on the genre and the book, an unruly toddler who keeps escaping the character’s control.  (Will E. get runover?  Tune in next book for…)

9-      Start at the most dramatic moment.  You can always backtrack.  (Go read the opening of Monster Hunter International if you don’t believe me.)  Starting with a startling sentence is not a bad idea, provided it pays off.  This is very useful if you know that your first scene is going to seem a little slow or out of genre.  You start with something that’s strong and in genre, and then you backtrack. So, say you start with “They say you never hear the bullet that hits you.  But I heard it, just before my chest exploded in unbearable pain.  It was a normal day around here in October.  There was a cold drizzle falling, and I was sitting in the coffee shop, drinking a late and re-reading my shopping list.  Did I really need onions?  And then I heard it, a sort of low buzz, that exploded in a flower of pain at my chest.”

10-  Be sure your mood matches what you want to do with the book.  If you’re writing a funny book, don’t start with a gritty, dark, hopeless scene.  A sentence or two, sure, but only if you’re setting up the punch line.  In the same way, unless you’re piling on the noir irony, don’t start a serious book with a funny line.  “Joe was as dead as cabbage.  Which was roughly the color he’d turned.  All of which would be fine if he weren’t wearing a vaudeville costume and doing a soft-shoe routine on my front doorstep.” … well, if you meant that for a serious and subtly romantic story about two pianists… boy, are you going wrong.

And that’s it.  Once the book is started, things do get easier.  It’s a lot easier to forgive mistakes in cuing or signaling in the middle, because the reader is already there.

It’s capturing the reader that is difficult.

Lay your trap well.


49 thoughts on “How to Catch A Reader

  1. I have seen a number of stories that take number 9 and run with it, but fall down on the other points. Beginning in media res is a way of introducing characters to readers, not a substitute for characterization. Done poorly, opening with an action sequence can be just as dull as any other long-winded description.

    It’s common in bad action movies, but I’ve seen it in books, too. It doesn’t matter how many bullets are flying through the air unless I care about who they hit.

    1. It’s a bit of an overused mechanism, but it’s SO tempting a trope. You start off in the middle of a firefight, and your main character stops for a moment to figure out how it all went so wrong, and you’re halfway through the book before you get back to where you started.

      I deliberately subverted that one in Chapter 2 of “Doctor Mauser: Red on Red”. The chapter opens with Dr. Mauser dodging bullets in an alley in Johannesburg and he doesn’t have time to think about how it all went wrong until he finally escapes.

      It’s here as a preview but it req

      1. (crud, premature posting)
        … but it requires a DeviantArt account because it’s tagged Mature Content for violence and bloodshed.

      2. your main character stops for a moment to figure out how it all went so wrong

        Larry Block did that a _lot_, particularly in his Bernie Rodenbar mysteries. First chapter Bernie is conducting a burglary (which will inevitably get tied into a murder). Second and Third are the back story of what led him to that particular burglary, and the rest is solving the murder before _he_ gets arrested and convicted for it.

    2. For an action scene opening to work, you need at least a bit of characterization. Someone’s in mortal peril? Great. But give the reader a reason to _care_ about that person if you want the reader to be involved.

      Larry did that brilliantly (IMO) in Monster Hunter International. Ever had a horrible pause? Then you could immediately empathize with someone wanting to throw one out a window.

      With that as the lead-in to the big fight scene, we had a reason to root for Owen.

  2. I’m slowly coming to understand all these, but I still can’t hack #6. All I manage to do is give my main character little problems in the first scene that grow into larger problems later in the story. In the current work, my heroine’s worst problem is a completely unreasonable parent and the ogre-mechs who think it’s funny. It only expands later to an OMG, my father may have been right how dangerous the universe is–

        1. Gotta know your audience. My one (and only) short story was written about 9th grade, well after falling head-first into SF, for a school assignment. We were to read them to the class. I started in the middle, with action, with a little explanation – i.e. wakened by the intrusion alarm on a spaceship, etc. – but my audience was a bunch of schoolkids for whom “a short story” was “what I did on my vacation”. Went soooo.. far over their heads, you could be blinded by the reflection from the collective glazed eyes!

          1. 😀 I did write one sf short in school when we were asked to write an essay happening in the future. Mine was in the form of a letter some kid wrote to her friends from a moon colony, seemed like the easiest to handle form for that kind of story. Pretty upbeat image of future, with space colonies and everything, although I did insert some overpopulation and pollution issues (hey, this was mid-70’s and I was a young teen). I hadn’t read Heinlein yet, but translations of Asimov and Clarke were available and I was familiar with their early production.

            Well, the teacher picked a few to read in front of the class, mine not one of them. The few picked ones were all dystopias, the winner a ‘last man on the Earth after nuclear war’ one (hey, 70’s, female protagonists were not yet mandatory, just pessimism). I remember being rather pissed. Not because mine wasn’t picked, but for the subject material of the ones which were. Rather ruined the mood I had been in when we got the assignment. 🙂

  3. I tend to data dump in the first chapter. Lots of pruning later, but it does help to get the worldbuilding down on paper–electrons, you purists–so I can refer back to it as I write. Then move it or remove it on the second pass. Very important to not skip that part.

  4. Funny you should mention spaceship maneuvering. One of my recent stories involved some near-future spacecraft docking. I read up on it, extracted a few key details, and did it all in under a paragraph without bogging down the story. Unless the story hinges on it, you don’t need to spend too much time on it.

    1. Me, too! But my maneuvers are part of the story, much later, and a big deal. So, I go on and on and on. To build tension.

      1. And as another example, I was deeply bored by a book which promised Big Space Opera, yet had an opening chapter 50 pages long describing, in excruciating detail, one ship trying to catch up with and dock with another. I’m sure it was accurate, but it (among other issues) ensured I never read another book in the series.

  5. I almost always find that I’ve started the story too late, which is the opposite of what I read in articles about writing and see other people doing. Usually I have to go back and add a bunch of scenes to the beginning. I write space-opera type science fiction, so there’s always a fair bit of worldbuilding. I keep *trying* to start at the “moment of change”. But that could start with the birth of the protagonist, so figuring out which “moment of change” will make the best experience for the user is difficult. At least I always seem to be struggling with it. If the readers are getting confused, often going back and starting earlier works better for me.

    I also tend to skip over the “action” parts of stories; the bits I’m most interested in are usually the dialogs. So I have a hard time thinking of appropriate interesting action. Talking heads aren’t such a great way to start either 😦

    1. Karin, my last piece feels as if it is all dialogue and no action. (Which is why it is a raw draft at this moment and I’m rereading Swain to see remind myself what needs to be fixed.)

      1. Good dialogue can be quite entertaining. It’s been a while since I read The Belgariad, but as far as I remember the main reason why I kept reading was the dialogue. Everything else was pretty standard and might have gotten boring after a while, but lots of the dialogue just managed to fit my sense of humor. And I would have wanted even more of it.

  6. I am reminded of Spider Robinson’s account of the first Orson Scott Card story he read. He described the first page and a half as (from memory):

    “There was this weather sculptress on Mars that was finding getting repeatedly killed starting to be annoying.”

    Spider then went on to say the intro was so skillfully written that the reader accepted this background and was eager to read what happened next.

  7. A the moment, these are the opening two paragraphs of the most recent WIP, _Circuits and Crises_. Feel free to use the sample as either a good example or a horrible warning – I’m up to my elbows in non-fic at the moment and will be polishing and tweaking this at a later date.
    “There! Angle the light a little more to the left,” Andrew Babenburg, by grace of Godown Emperor of the East, ordered his brother. “I can almost see the bolts.”
    Thomas grunted and shifted the mirror a half-centimeter, so that the reflected sunlight hit the top of the faulty pump. Andrew reached down, rummaging in the ancient toolbox until he found the right wrench by feel, then loosened the bolt so they could pull the pump out of the line and replace the valve leather. Only someone with Andy’s long, skinny hands could get the blasted thing loose without dropping it, Thomas grumbled, nursing his own scraped knuckles.
    (And yes, the imperial family is responsible for the water supply to the capitol city. This plays a major role in Thomas’s actions later in the book.)

    1. I’ll play along, too. I really have no idea if this is a good, bad, or indifferent opening. (Though it does hit at least some of the points listed above.) And don’t name your Main Character “An”. It drives the spell/grammar checkers crazy.

      An sat there, alone at her table. She should have just had her dinner in her room. Or gone somewhere else. But she was too tired to go somewhere else. Far too tired. And it was later than she intended, since she had slept for a couple hours after she arrived, rather than the five minutes of resting her eyes that she had intended. Maybe she should have just skipped dinner entirely, and gone straight up to see Jelana and Daved. But she’d told them she’d be there tomorrow, and she wasn’t sure she’d trust herself on the road now.

      She hated eating this late. It upset her system, made her cranky for the next day as well.

      And her system was already upset, since she was two weeks late getting here. Her left hand reached up and touched her temple. She was getting such a headache. Never again, she vowed, would she delay like this.
      Then she sighed again. Right, she had resigned her job, so there shouldn’t be any reason to delay again.
      She opened her eyes and looked up, and saw Mattan looking at her curiously. She turned her face away. Usually they managed to ignore each other, at most exchanging polite nothings if they chanced to meet. Then she changed her mind and looked straight at him. Anything was better than continuing to eat alone.

      1. I found all the comments on mine a few weeks ago, tremendously helpful, so here goes and applying Sarah’s rules:
        1. This is definitely about someone. You have given us someone who is bleakly tired and probably unhappy. I’m curious about the cause, which is good (that I’m curious–not the cause), because now I’m curious about her.
        2. I want to know what she looks like, even just a little teeny bit of info: she’s frail, stolid, bone-thin, built to haul Labradors.
        3. You hint at a problem. She resigned her job. Could you give inquiring minds one more piece of information?
        4. Worldbuilding/situating: when and where are they? I read too much science fiction so have assumed nothing and feel kind of lost in space. I went to your website and think you should tell us sooner than before you switch POV. (Bear in mind, of course, that I don’t have any expertise and am just speaking as a reader who needs to be sucked in a little sooner).
        5. Got some 5 senses. That’s good.
        And, I’m really not qualified for the 6-10. I don’t know how much should be in the first page.
        p.s. I like your language. You’ll want to get rid of some repetition, I suspect, but it moves along nicely.

        1. Thanks for the feedback!

          Query: Would a line saying that she is having difficulty eating the food (though it’s usually her favorite) because she can barely taste or smell it (implying that the fault is hers, not the food’s) count as using a sense?

  8. I can hit those marks pretty reliably. The polish isn’t there yet, but that will come with practice.

    Where I really get into trouble is once I finish establishing the characters, their world, and their situation. When I sit back and think “Now what?”
    Sure, I know the type of story I’m telling, the characters I’m telling it with, the driving theme, and have some scenes sketched out, but transforming those into a plot?
    That’s magic.
    And it really doesn’t help to have established writers telling stories about how their characters demanded they change the story in this way or that way. Mine just look at me expectantly and blink. (OK, some of the smarter ones try to hide.)

    (This is more a “please tell me I’m not the only one” than anything else. I don’t mean to hijack the thread. Or pitifully beg for attention.)

    1. I do that occasionally. Generally I find that I have a lack of Problem. I have to figure out what matters to those characters, then figure out how to royally mess it up.

      1. I’m good enough finding the problems. The problem is solving them (pantser. Or sometimes half and half, if I’m lucky. I can plan a plot beforehand, I just can’t stay in it).

      2. Thankyouthankyouthankyou!
        You triggered an epiphany. It wasn’t the lack of a Problem, it was too many of the buggers competing for attention. I’ve prioritized them, and can now see the way forward.

        That’s been driving me nuts. Soooo glad to be unstuck.

      3. My problem, similar to that, is that I figured out the whole story in my head, built the world, developed the characters, and now I feel like the story is done, and I haven’t even put it all down on paper yet. I’ve entertained myself, maybe my husband or kids in the development and telling of the plot, but its forever unfinished. Sad, but true.

        I have also found I work for kudos. if there isn’t someone reading the story (not just family) and asking for more, I lose interest. Character fault, I’m sure.

        1. I do that. Sometimes I have to outline a few chapters ahead, but outlining all the way to the end tends to kill the urge to flesh it all out.

    2. You’re not alone Luke. Happens to me from time to time. What Pam said works, although sometimes you can try “what’s the best thing that can happen? And then what would happen? And what would go wrong?” Because characters need to work for their happily ever afters.

      I tend to have scenes pop up, and then have to find a way to connect them. Is there a character that might be the link? Or another event? Working backwards sometimes helps, too. “OK, we’re here, how did we get here from there?”

      1. Heh. In this case, the best thing that could happen is “the protagonist grows the %$^& up”. But that’s necessarily a process…

        Thanks for the advice. I’ll file it for future use.

    3. You are definitely not the only one. I’m just happy if I know how it’s going to end, and I start a lot of things where I am waiting for that information.

  9. I seem to cram too much background information in the beginning. Bigger problem with SF than with fantasy. On the other hand I seem to need to do that in order to get started, the problem is trying to cut the parts which need to be cut when editing, and making sure that the necessary parts then have been inserted somewhere suitable later in the story.

  10. As I was reading your points I was mentally checking them off based on the Prologue and Chapter One of David Weber’s ‘On Basilisk Station’ since it fits most of your points (1-6, 8 and 10 are definitely there) and is easy to see:

    1. Honor and Nimitz.
    2. Describes the Space Station and her trek through it.
    3. The mystery of what is wrong with her new orders
    4. The different head gear ship commanders wear, the way people have to check in to a ship, how that Navy does change of command, how treecats are not pets, etc.
    5. The description of what Honor feels, see’s, hears and such as she handles Nimitz as they enter the Space Station.
    6. The threat of the possible war with the Republic of Haven.
    8. The Prologue sets the stage that you know Honor is going to find herself mixed up in.
    10. You start with the mystery about her orders and her new ship which follows into the mystery of what is happening on the Planet Medusa to the mystery of what the Haven Merchantman really. Each one had an unpleasant surprise that force Honor to do something out of what would be the routine.

  11. This is the opening of what will be the first book out. I’m told there are some “clunky sentences, so I still need early readers. Sigh.
    Joe was just was finishing his Sunday dinner. The usual macaroni and cheese, with Tuna fish and peas, when the phone rang. Turning on his chair, he wheeled over to the phone, wondering who it could be.
    “Would you be interested in a very seasonal, part time job?”
    “What the . . . I’m sorry. You must have the wrong number.”
    “No, I don’t.” Came the strangely resonant voice. Almost as if he should recognize it, though he didn’t.
    “Your name is Joe . . . , and you live at . . . , and you’re Sixty Two years old this year. You’re disabled from a back injury, due to an auto accident Ten years ago . . . ” The rest was lost in a fog.
    (hit me at grafxmanus at Yahoo dot com, or on Facebook, to be an early reader. I want to get it to an editor soon.)

    1. Joe wheeled over to answer the phone. Just a few more minutes, and he’d have been able to finish Sunday dinner in peace.

      – Then you can do dialogue while he’s still half-thinking about salty tuna against the creaminess of mac and cheese and the fresh green taste of peas, maybe sucking it out of the corners of his mouth. Or you can skip the menu.

  12. I’ve been lurking since Sarah’s A Novel in 13 Weeks series at PJ Media (clearly I didn’t finish in 13 weeks or I would have stopped lurking with an Amazon link). This seems like a good time to come out of the woodwork.

    That seems a bit much to try to cram into the first page. Rather than argue about it (with people who know far more about this than I), I’ll follow the pattern and post the first page:

    Looking out through the glass conference room walls at the Rocky Mountains, Dan wondered if he would ever grow out of his “I’d rather be outside playing” attitude on days like this. The dour, little man silhouetted against the sunshine made it unlikely that today would be that day. He tried not to grimace as he opened the door and stepped into the room, his sister Kate right behind him.
    “Здрасвуйтия, Сергей,” Dan said as he walked around the conference table to shake hands. “Я надаюсь что мы гаворим по-англиский.”
    “Yes, English will be fine,” Sergey replied, trying not to wince at Dan’s Russian. “It is good to see you, again, my friend.” His English was as polished as his wardrobe, but neither covered a sense, almost a stench, of unpleasantness. “How have you been since my last visit to your country?”
    “Very good, thank you. The last few years have been profitable ones. As you can see, my sister Kate and I are still managing things, together.”
    Kate took advantage of the table between them, walking only halfway around to reach out and shake his hand. She hated the custom of hugs and faux kisses, let alone with him. “Nice to see you again, Sergey. How is mother Russia treating you?”
    “Very well, very well indeed. I have been most fortunate. Though, as with most things in Russia, every silver lining has its cloud. While not as attractive as you, young lady, I have some help, myself. I would like you to meet my assistant, Peter,” Sergey replied, gesturing at the sullen-looking giant looming in the corner of the room.
    Dan spoke quickly, “Nice to meet you, Peter. This is my sister, Kate.” He thought it prudent to make the attachment quite explicit. Too many powerful men – and their ‘assistants’ – seemed to think they could take whatever they pleased. He was not going to leave Kate alone with either of these men, if he could help it. Despite her abilities, handling Peter might be a bit much for her. At least Dan did not think his sister had ever killed anyone.
    Choosing not to get her brother’s warning and seeing that Peter seemed unlikely to leave his post in the corner, Kate walked over to shake hands. “Pleased to…” she began before freezing at his touch.

    1. It ate the start-of-paragraph tabs. Copy/paste and formatting. Getting something ready for publication is going to be a nightmare. Anyway…

      Off the list:
      1. We don’t know who of the four we’re supposed to care about. You do find out before the end of the first chapter.
      2. Other than the vaguely described bad guys, we have no clue what anyone looks like. This is probably backwards (Sergey only pops up once more; Peter does play a part near the end).
      3. Cliff-hung at the problem. Check.
      4. We know where-ish. We don’t know when. This is actually important and it’s not in the first chapter. Will fix that.
      5. There’s metaphorical smell, does that count?
      6. What’s important becomes very clear on the next page.
      7. Is that whole thing about Russian irrelevant? Just rip it out because “who cares?”
      8. Big bad guy taking on little sister seems reason enough to at least turn the page, right? maybe?
      9. Third page.
      10. I think so. No way to be sure, yet.

      I guess I didn’t need to do this in public, but I’m tired of lurking 😉

      1. It’s useful for all of us. It’s interesting to see whether someone else has applied a set of guidelines to his work, because then the rest of us can start figuring out the value of the guidelines. We’ll notice that x was missing, and it matters. This is much easier to figure out when looking at someone else’s work.

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