Rule 2: Hook Your Readers on Page 1. Yay or nay?
Follow the rule, advises author Jerry B. Jenkins. As a reader, Jenkins says on the Writer’s Digest site, “I want to be engaged from the first sentence and held throughout. I recently critiqued a beginner’s manuscript that began, ‘I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage …’ Well, if it’s an adage, it’s old, and if it’s an old adage, yes, we’ve all heard it. So why in the world would you want to start your novel with that?” Further, Jenkins asks, “Would you be more gripped by an old adage, or by something like, ‘When he kissed her goodbye and said he’d see her at dinner, Elizabeth believed only Ben’s goodbye’?”
However, author Steve Almond recommends breaking this rule—especially if you’re a new writer. He views the rule as a landmine writers fall into; in an attempt to hook the reader, writers jump into the middle of a vignette and offer the reader no backstory whatsoever. The reader becomes confused and, responding in direct opposition to the writer’s intent, gives up on the book within the first chapter.
While I solidly side with Jenkins that a first sentence should grab the reader’s interest, I agree with Almond that you can’t go too far into a random vignette before you begin giving it context. I urge memoir writers to find something more fascinating as a first sentence than “I was born in St. Louis during World War II.” Even if that’s the first fact you provide, throw in some more information to give it some oomph: “My birth came as a welcome event to my family not only because of the healthy baby boy delivered that day at a St. Louis hospital shortly after the United States entered World War II, but also because having a child come into the world excused my father from reporting for duty to the U.S. Navy for two full weeks.”
We’ll tackle rule #3 next week!