Opening Strategies

There are many ways to hook a reader who opens your book–a great cover, a catchy title, luscious descriptions on the back cover, an endearing character portrait, a captivating first line to your novel, and so on.

Yet all too soon, much of how well the story grabs a reader will depend upon whether your conflict is engaging. Interestingly, I can only see a couple of ways to introduce a significant conflict.

The first method is to front-load the book, giving the reader a massive conflict on the opening page. Brandon Sanderson did this nicely in Elantris. Robert Jordan does it in the prologue to The Wheel of Time. Both novels sold extremely well as a result.

On a biological level, the reader experiences a rush of adrenaline as he or she is faced with a conflict, as well as increased levels of cortisol as stress is induced. The fact that the stress is unresolved suggests that there may be an element of mystery, so that the body supplies a bit of dopamine to incite the reader to go on reading—and since the reader is looking for a pleasurable experience, the brain will also gush serotonin to signal that, “Hey, we found the good stuff.”

All in all, this seems like a very heady mix. (Pun intended.)

The second method is to create a mystery in the opening pages, taking perhaps a dozen chapters to reveal the main conflict. This technique is very popular with young adult fiction. For example, we see it handled well in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.

On a biological level, when we read a mystery the body dispenses dopamine to keep the reader on the trail for clues, but of course since there are growing conflicts and a sense of “Hey, we found the good stuff,” the other chemicals will come into play to lesser degrees. As a mystery is resolved, the brain is treated to a rush of serotonin.

In any case, these are the two main strategies that we can use to introduce conflicts, but it does give rise to countless variations. Think of them as notes on a scale: A) mystery, B) conflict. We can vary them. For example, we might go with a line like this: A, A, A, B. A, A, A, B. In this example we might create a sense of mystery for five pages to lead to the revelation of a major conflict—which in turn leads to more mysteries and an even greater conflict in chapter two.

But of course you can create any variation: B, A, A. B, A, A, A—and so on.

In short, there are only a couple of notes here, but we can play them in any combination. Yet one thing is clear: If you don’t play either note in your opening—usually within two pages—your entire book will fail.

Why? Because few people will read a book that doesn’t offer significant conflicts that grab their interest quickly.

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