There’s a saying in movies that you have to grab the viewer in the first ten minutes.
Next time you’re watching your favourite movies take a look at what has happened by the ten minute mark.
By the time those precious ten minutes are up, the viewer should know who the hero is, what he/she wants and what the main thrust of the plot will be.
And they should CARE about the hero/heroine otherwise they are not going to keep watching and you’ve lost them. The same goes for books.
How far can a reader get in ten minutes? Ten pages, one chapter? How long do you have to capture the reader?
Rather than worry about how long you have, concentrate on making your opening so gripping, the reader has to keep turning the pages.
I love genre. I am unashamedly a genre writer so, for me, Story is King (or Queen if you are worried about sexism). And for me, Story = Plot driven by Character. Now that I’ve warned you about my (not so) hidden agenda, here are my tips.
When I run workshops I tell aspiring writers make me care. To do this:
Give your hero/heroine a BIG problem.
Make your readerlike them. (They don’t have to be all sweetness and light. In fact I like a character better if they have failings. Abercrombie’s Glokta is one of my favourite characters!).
Put your hero/heroine in danger.
Reveal something to the reader, that the character doesn’t know. Make it something they need to know.
Make the bad guys really bad, but with a motivation that would be logical. And if you really want to turn the screws, make your baddie a little bit likable, too.
Set a time limit.
Make your character determined to do something (even if it turns out to be the wrong thing). There is nothing so irritating as a character who vacillates.
Keep back-story to a minimum. (I know this is hard in fantasy and SF because we build these amazing worlds and societies, which impact on our characters’ motivations and life choices. But it is the PEOPLE the reader cares about, not the history). You can fill the reader in later. As a reader, I’ll take a lot on faith if I am captured by the characters and their dilemma. I can catch up with back story later.
Logic – make sure your world building is logical. Nothing breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief faster than a logic flaw. And if there’s one in the first chapter, the book is likely to be riddled with them.
There’s lots of good advice for writers on how to make their opening chapter/s riveting. Here are Mike Gagon’s tips for writing a great opening for your books. And here at Fiction Notes they cover the basics.
See here for some analysis of openings from Sarah Hoyt over at the Mad Genius Club. And here’s some first paragraphs.
See Leanne C Taylor’s article on how the 10 minute movie rule applies to games.
For fun see here for great opening sentences from science fiction books, a post by Charles Jane Anders. And here are 100 great opening lines from all sorts of books. Andhere at About.com is a list of opening chapters (an excerpts) from novels, if you want to do some reading to compare how other authors handle this.
Those first 10 minutes, when the reader steps into your world and into your character’s shoes are critical. Do you have a favourite opening page or two, that gripped you from the start? Is there an author you know you can rely on to sweep you away?