The Beginning Pulling The Reader In

You have a big job to do in Act One. You must grab our attention, set up the story, and ignite our desire to read through to the end. Here's how you accomplish this:

• Start with a strong narrative hook. Like the hook on a line that snags fish, a narrative hook catches readers. It lets you grab our attention and reel us into your story. Compare these two possible openings:

Version 1: Once there lived a woman named Cinderella. She was beautiful but sad. Her two stepsisters were mean and evil. They always treated her cruelly. They made her dress in rags and do all the household chores.

Then one day a messenger arrived. He brought an invitation to a ball at the royal palace.

Version 2: How beautiful, Cinderella marveled. What could this be? The messenger at her door extended his silver tray with the missive resting upon it. The folded parchment was of the finest quality and the wax that sealed it was golden. Impressed into the wax was the King's coat of arms.

But Cinderella didn't dare pick it up. Even though she had brushed her fingers against her tattered skirt, they were covered with soot.

"Cinderella!" shrieked her stepsister, the older one with the drab brown hair. "Whatever made you think you were allowed to answer the door? Back to the scullery, you worthless girl, there's work to be done."

In the second version, readers stand at the doorstep with Cinderella, sharing her awe and curiosity regarding the message on the silver tray. We feel her humiliation when the screeching stepsister arrives. Instead of simply being told the stepsister is cruel, we experience it firsthand. We want to know more about the conflict we already see brewing. If readers never get past the first paragraphs, all the art and craft you've put into the story will be for naught. Once upon a time, a writer could be leisurely in introducing a story, but times and styles have changed. People today lead busy, fast-paced lives. We have competing demands for our attention and plenty of entertainment options to choose from. We give you a moment or two to sell us on reading your story, and if we aren't intrigued we'll quickly move on to something else.

Start your story in a way that will compel our interest and suggest the conflict to come. If you are quick to arouse our curiosity and involve us in the action, we're sure to keep reading.

• Jump into the action. Don't feel you must explain every-thing—who, what, when, where, why—in the first paragraphs. We will want to know these things fairly soon, but as we watch and listen to the characters, we'll enjoy the pleasure of discovering them for ourselves. If you must explain something, weave the explanation into the action—let one character tell another, or show us through the viewpoint character's thoughts or observations. This is the opening of my story, The Old Furiosity Shoppe:

The plate soared in a high arc, the face on it wild-eyed, grimacing. Then it hit the brick wall and shattered, the fragments tumbling to the floor. Isaac smiled as he swept them up. He could make out a corner of the mouth, an eyelid, a bit of nostril.

"Aw right!" whooped the kid who had sailed the plate. He raised his fist in triumph as his buddies applauded.

"Way to go, Danny!" yelled the redhead. "That sure takes care of ol' man Cuthbert."

"I wanna do one," said the reedy boy with the ghost of a mustache.

"Griswold this time," Danny decided. "The creep flunked me on that stupid math test."

The boys pushed dollar bills at Isaac, who stuffed the money in the cashbox and handed out clean white plates and marking pens. The kids set to work sketching the faces of their enemies on the crockery.

The strong but perplexing image in the first paragraph becomes clear as we come to realize, without being told, that we are in a business establishment. At the Old Furiosity

Shoppe, customers pay to vent their frustrations by drawing them on crockery which they then smash.

• Introduce the important characters. As much as possible, let us see them in action. Make it clear who the protagonist is, and let her begin to win our interest and sympathy. If a character who plays a key role won't show up until later in the story, introduce him in absentia, through the conversation of the characters who are present or by some other means. In Cinderella, the Prince doesn't come on stage until midway through Act Two, but the stepsisters, by their excited reaction to the invitation to the ball, tell us right away that he's important to the story.

• Present the inciting incident. This moment may take place on- or off-stage, but it should occur early in the story. In fact, it might have transpired even before the story opens. If so, depict it in a flashback or discuss it in dialogue so that readers clearly understand what it is.

• Set up the questions and conflicts. By the end of Act One, we should have a sense of what's at stake—the central issue of the story, the protagonist's predicament and her goal, and the principal conflict to be resolved. The tension should be buzzing from the outset; remember, there is no flat place on the story line on the narrative structure diagram.

• Wrap up this section with the first plot point or crisis.

Choose a significant complication to create the forward movement that propels us into the middle of the story.

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