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Today's Special: What makes for a successful story starter?
Starting a novel or short story is like making a promise to the reader. You set up rules and expectations that your readers will rely on as they read your piece. Specifically, there are five things that you should establish early on in your story to gain the reader's trust. Delaying or changing these elements on your reader will create tension and while that might get the reader's attention, it will also mean you'll have to work that much harder to gain back the reader's trust during the rest of the story.
5 Essential Things You Promise to Your Reader:
1) You promise a character.
From the get-go your readers will want to know who they're supposed to root for. Sometimes writers will artfully delay the appearance of the main character in order to create anticipation or to reflect the character's personality, but this is very unusual. In most cases, the protagonist usually appears in the first chapter, and is often the very first character the reader sees.
A great example of a delayed main character from children's literature is The Wainscott Weasel by Tor Seidler, in which the protagonist does not appear at all in the first chapter. (OK, this example isn't YA, but it's such a great example, I couldn't resist.) Another example, of course, is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, in which Elizabeth's ultimate love interest--Mr. Darcy--doesn't appear until well into the story. In the case of both books, these characters are introverted and shy. By holding the characters back and making the reader wait for them, the authors show us this facet of their personalities.
2) You promise the voice.
The voice of the narration is central to establishing the mood of the story. Compare the opening sentences to the following novels and notice the different moods that they convey.
"Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that's true."~Gayle Forman, If I Stay
"We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to totally suck."~M.T. Anderson, Feed
Point of view (POV) is also central to the voice and mood. Notice that in the three above examples, all of the narrators were in the first person, which allows us to hear the character's voice. There are other scenarios where the narrator is not the protagonist, but the voice of the protagonist still comes through loud and clear in dialogue."If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
3) You promise the world.
Promise the world? As in the whole world? It might sound huge but it's not just any world you're promising, it's your world. It's the world of your book. It doesn't matter what genre you're writing either. Whether you're writing contemporary YA set in a regular suburb, or some elaborate fantasy story set in another world, you have to let your reader into that world and it must feel real.
4) You promise a problem.
From minute one, your reader has to know that there's a problem the character is facing. Whether that problem is explicit (like the family's financial state in Pride and Prejudice) or a mystery (like in If I Stay) we know from the first moment that the character is facing some difficulty, some problem. This promise is essential because whatever this problem is, it will be crucial in establishing the central conflict for your story.
5) You promise an event.
Every book opens with some sort of event that kick-starts the story. In If I Stay, the event is huge and turns the characters' lives upside-down (not gonna say what it is, in case any of you reader-friends haven't read it yet). In Catcher in the Rye, Holden leaves boarding school and that sets off the chain of events that is the story. In Feed, we start by going to the moon to have fun and the story unravels from there. Whether the event simply nudges the story into motion or gives it a sharp shove, there must be an event early on that gets the story started. Your reader will be waiting for that event, so you will need to deliver. Try not to delay it for too long.
What do you think? Any promises I missed and any you'd like to add?
Want to hear more about YA story starters? Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her thoughts on her blog: All About Them Words. Check it out, then tell us what you think!