Have you ever read a story that completely failed to engage your attention? Probably so. How long did you stick with it? Fifty pages? Ten? Five? My personal low was two pages when reading an old science fiction novel my dad owned. I think I started that book three times over the course of several years and never made it past the second page.
Why does this happen? Basically, it’s a structural failing. You see, every story needs a structure, and that structure can be stated very simply: beginning, middle, end. As straightforward as that may seem, writers don’t always figure it out. When they don’t, the result can be a story in which nothing seems to happen, and when nothing happens, readers quickly get fed up.
So what is this beginning, middle, end thing, anyway? Well . . .
The beginning is where main characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the principal conflict is set up.
The middle is where most of the events play out. Lesser characters may be introduced and additional conflicts may arise. Throughout, the tension increases, the stakes get higher, the challenges become tougher. Even if the characters meet with small successes, things generally get worse for them.
The end is where the main conflict is resolved and loose ends are tied up. Compared to the rest of the work, this part is relatively short for one very good reason: resolution of the main conflict removes the tension and, thus, most of the interest.
Reread that last bit. No tension equals no interest. Books that fail to engage your attention are likely books lacking tension, or at least books with tension well-hidden. Maybe the writer spent the first ten pages providing background before presenting the main conflict. Maybe the initial conflict wasn’t much of a conflict. Or maybe it’s just you. After all, different people have different tastes and interests. Decades back my wife recommended a novel to me that, upon reading, I found stultifying. She couldn’t believe it. One of the main characters had suffered a serious injury and spent most of the novel at death’s door! How could I not be interested? Unfortunately, I didn’t care much about that character for whatever reason, and nothing much else seemed to be happening while he was busy almost dying. Oh, well.
Personal tastes aside, a story’s beginning has an important job to do: it must draw the reader in. To that end, writers employ what is called a hook. The hook is simply something interesting or unusual or dramatic that makes readers want to find out what’s going on. It’s what carries the reader past the first paragraph of a short story or the first page of a novel. It isn’t necessarily the main conflict, although it could be. It provides the vital infusion of tension without which readers won’t become engaged.
If I may, I’ll use my own writing as an example, since I know it so well. The Fibonacci Murders opens with a statement from a key character, mathematician Tomio Kaneko, about why he was involved in a murder investigation. In the course of this short passage, he states that had he not become involved, he would have been spared injury. The main conflict (a sequence of murders that take on a serial killer aspect) doesn’t start immediately and Kaneko’s involvement comes well into the novel. But I needed to get him onto the scene early because of the key role he plays. So I decided to introduce each chapter which a personal statement by him. The opening statement injects some menace because the reader knows that he’s going to get hurt. That point only happens near the end (technically, in the late part of the story’s middle), but its foreshadowing creates an element of tension that (I hope!) draws the reader in.
In True Death, I handled it a bit differently. We first meet a guy sitting alone on the porch of a run-down cabin out in the mountains and through his musings find out that he regards himself as dead. Clearly something tragic has happened to him, but just what will only become clear late in the novel. At the outset, we don’t even know his name. Ice on the Bay opens with an actual crime being committed, a botched robbery at a veterinary clinic. You’ll read that something has gone horribly wrong, but you won’t immediately find out what.
These three examples, different as they are, share a common theme. You meet someone to whom something bad happens, but you don’t get any details about what it was. With any luck you want to know the details, and that’s what pulls you into the story. As the old writer’s addage puts it, “Shoot the sheriff on the first page.” To which I might add, “But don’t reveal who shot him. Or if you do, don’t let on why they shot him.” Give the reader something to worry about, then keep them worried. That’s tension. That’s what keeps them reading. That’s a good beginning.
But, of course, that’s only the start . . .