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, or in James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. 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 that you like. 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. – I have three exciting workshops coming up in the next few months: Join me for a boot camp at Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers in May, the Worldbuilding Master Class in July, or the Casting Your Novel Master Class in July. Writing & Illustrating for Young Readers, June 15-19: I’m excited to be teaching at WIFYR this year–and especially to be reading the works of the students involved. It was at workshops like this that I first discovered #1 New York Times Bestsellers Brandon Mull, Jessica Day George, Brandon Sanderson, and Stephenie Meyer. Now, I’m hoping to help mentor someone else of that caliber. Hopefully it’s you! *Note: The early-bird discount ends March 15th. You can enroll here: www.WIFYR.com. Worldbuilding Master Class, July 7-11: One key to creating a blockbuster tale is to learn to transport the reader to another time and another place. In this workshop, I’ll take you through world building in fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction, including dystopias and utopias. You will learn how to view the world as a character and source of conflict, how to create planets, new life forms, societies, and economic systems, magic systems, political systems and so on. You will watch popular films where the author did it right—and you’ll perform exercises where you brainstorm your own world, create your settings, write key descriptions and scenes, and have them critiqued by the rest of the group and by me, as well. Enroll here. Casting Your Novel Master Class, July 13-17: A lot has been said about creating characters–things that don’t really work, like filling 100 pages of information about him or her. If you did this while brainstorming every major character in a novel, you would have 1,000 pages of notes on characters alone. In this workshop I’ll teach you how to direct your energy to building characters that are not only believable and complex, but are ready to spur conflict, explore themes, and complete an emotion-empowered character arc. Enroll today!

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