First impressions are powerful! The first key to success is to get potential readers to buy your book out of the thousands of options available to them. We talked about how to do that HERE. But that’s only half the battle to success. You want them to read your story, enjoy it so much that they write positive reviews about it, tell their friends and family about it, and expand your fan base.
If someone buys your book but never reads it, you haven’t accomplished your biggest goal—to have someone fully appreciate your writing. After all, isn’t that why you write? You’ve poured vast amounts of time, energy, heart, and soul into communicating a message and telling an impactful story. Not just for yourself, but so that others would enter your world, become completely immersed in it, and relish the experience!
How can you get someone to read your entire book? That is an incredibly difficult task. People are unbelievably busy and pulled in too many directions, and it’s hard for them to find time or energy to even start a book. And even if they start, it’s much too easy to be distracted and put it down. Or fall asleep out of exhaustion. You need to utterly captivate them so that once they start reading, they can’t put your book down! When they do, they keep thinking about it…wondering what happens next and eagerly anticipating finishing it.
In order to achieve that, you must hook them from the start. That’s where so many writers fail. Here’s an example of the first paragraph of a book:
It was a warm, balmy evening. The kind that makes you sleepy. The city traffic noises are hypnottic. Like walking in a dream. A familiar dream, of the city. Gritty. Ugly. You start sweating. You know that danger is lurking, but right now you feel drowsy from lack of sleep. And lethargic. Even though your an FBI Agent. A famous one. Granite yawned and turned the corner.
FAIL! The reader isn’t hooked and most likely won’t continue very long (if at all). They’ll move on to something else. What went wrong? Their first impression of the story is negative. You never want that to happen. The first words they read must be absolutely riveting. The example above failed for several reasons:
* First, it’s boring. Start every first chapter with a gripping first scene. It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing. Captivate the reader!
* Next, we have no idea who is talking, where they are, what they are doing. We can’t visualize this scene and are stuck with a bunch of vague pieces that don’t fit together. What city is this? Why is this person drowsy and feeling dreamy when danger is lurking? Whoa! It’s an FBI agent! Why isn’t he on guard? Where is he? Is he walking or driving—or sleepwalking—when he turns the corner? This is too confusing to follow.
* The typos are distracting. “Hypnotic” is spelled with one “t.” There is no comma after “dream.” And, of course, the ultimate inexcusable typo—“your” should be “you’re.”
* There are too many stops. Don’t overuse. The short. Incomplete phrases. They are jolty. When written. This. Way. They are a special effect to be used sparingly and subtly. Using incomplete phrases is an art form. If you don’t know how to do it effectively, don’t do it…or it will backfire on you.
* It’s much, much too repetitive. Readers are smart. I’m going to say it again: readers are smart. They get it the first time. When you repeat something over and over, it’s demeaning—and irritating. If you tell us something once, we capture it in our “first impression.” Don’t say it again ten different ways or repeat it multiple times throughout the book. In this example, we get that the person is sleepy. You don’t have to say anything more about it unless he either falls asleep or something wakes him up.
Repetition is so overused by authors that I can’t stress it enough. We GET the first impression you give us, now give us something else. I constantly read descriptions like: “Her stunning blue eyes took his breath away.” In the next scene, “He was mesmerized when her blue eyes met his.” In the next scene, “His heart stuttered when she turned her blue eyes to him.” Then “Her blue eyes pierced his very soul.” Please stop! We know he is entranced by her blue eyes. Give us new information—a new visual, a new emotion, new body language.
Important: A professional editor would point out all of these problems, so make sure you utilize the expertise of someone who can help you succeed.
OK, let me make an attempt at a riveting first scene. Remember: you have only one chance to make an effective first impression!
The roaring in his head competed with the screams—high, piercing cries. What happened? He tried to get up, but his body was paralyzed. Dead weight. Something wet ran down his face, probably blood. A sniper must have hit his spinal cord. The screaming continued in his ear, and he fought with all his might to move.
Yelling, he bolted up—in bed, soaked and shaking. His German Shepherd whined and licked his hand. He gasped heavily to catch his breath and absently patted her head. She had been licking his face and crying, her usual method of waking him from the nightmares that tormented him most nights. His heart hammered wildly. He flicked on the light. No blood, no paralysis, no sniper. Just full-blown panic that felt exactly like…that horrible day.
He got up and stumbled to the bathroom, turning on the bright lights and leaning over the sink. The panic attack would take a while to subside. How long could he continue to live like this and not go crazy? He splashed cold water on his face, then scrubbed it hard with a towel. He caught his reflection in the mirror. A haggard old man with crazed and bloodshot gray eyes met him. He turned away. Rubbed his head and felt the thick scar under his sweaty cropped hair. The scar that stretched to his soul.
It was 4:10 a.m. More sleep than he usually got. He needed to take a shower and get himself under control. Become someone else—successful and highly esteemed FBI Special Agent Jim Granite. Always put together, always confident, the tough man who put more criminals behind bars than any other in New York. Fearless. Made of granite, just like his name.
As he turned on the shower, a strobing wail pierced the air—urgent call from work. He stumbled to get it.
Much better! Why? We are yanked into another world by the very first sentence, and the tension never lets up! We get a clear first impression of the main character. We know his secret immediately, and we are eager to find out exactly what happened to cause these night terrors. However, he hides it extremely well. He’s a successful and highly esteemed FBI special agent in New York. He’s tough as granite. We already feel like we know him—we are in his POV (feeling what he feels, thinking what he does). I’ve established a gripping first impression that you will cling to through the rest of the book.
Remember, it’s critical to establish every character the moment we see them. In real life or watching a movie, we take a full snapshot of the person. You need to write this way. In this case, we know he has gray eyes, short hair, and a deep scar on his scalp. He’s solidly built and tough. As soon as I can, I’ll describe his face (if he puts on glasses, if he shaves, if he has facial hair), his height, and how others view him. There’s nothing worse than imagining a character in your own way because the writer doesn’t describe them, then in the middle of the book they suddenly have blue-streaked hair, oversized glasses, and a peg leg! Tell us immediately what we would see if we were there. First impressions—even our own made-up descriptions—will stick with us through the entire story, and if you change or add things later on, we will balk at it.
Also, your plot needs to be racing forward. The reader needs to be yanked into the story and can’t get out. After we realize Granite is going to get himself together, he gets an urgent call from work. No lingering in the shower or drinking coffee or doing anything else. He has to go! Go! Go!
From the very first word, keep the reader trapped on a roller coaster that never stops. You can use internal or external conflicts, but keep your writing taut. You have one shot to hook your reader, so do it well!
Lora thoroughly enjoys editing fiction and nonfiction books for Christian authors. She views editing as a ministry first, partnering with authors to make their writing polished and successful. She also writes a blog of “Savvy Writer Tips” to help writers spot and fix common problems. Read them on her website: EditsbyLora.com or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SavvyWriterTips. Lora enjoys reading, editing, being outdoors, spending time with family and friends, music, art, quality chocolate, and soft kitties.