I remember the first time I fell in love with a book from page one. It was Sarah Dessen's This Lullaby.
I had discovered I wanted to be a Young Adult writer, so I went to Borders to see what was going on in YA fiction. They had quite a few by this Sarah Dessen chick, and I liked the covers. Her book descriptions sounded similar to mine, so I bought it and took it home.
I made myself lunch and sat in our kitchen's sunny eating nook. Then I opened This Lullaby and tumbled into Remy's world.
When I emerged hours later, I had that sensation of, "Wait ... where am I? What's going on? I had plans today, didn't I? Are they things I have to do, or can I move to a more comfortable chair and read the day away?"
(A side note, finishing This Lullaby led to an emotional breakdown during which I sobbed to my husband that I'd never get published because I would never be as good as Sarah Dessen. Why was I even trying? I'd never be able to write characters liked Remy and Dexter! Etc.)
We all want to create this sensation for our reader. (Not the emotional breakdown, but the lost-in-storyworld sensation.) To do this, we have to grab them from chapter one. From page one. Heck, from sentence one, if you can.
Here are some ways to draw in your reader:
Let us hear your character's voice right form the start.
The opening line of This Lullaby is "The name of the song is 'This Lullaby.' At this point, I've probably heard it, oh, about a million times. Approximately."
You can hear Remy's voice, can't you? You can tell she's jaded. Don't "ease us in" to who your character is. Show us right away.
Make it active
This is something I commonly see in manuscripts from beginning writers - the slow, painful build up. Opening on a typical day of the character's life. We travel with the character to school or her dead end job. We travel home with her. She nukes a burrito. She goes to bed. She wishes for a different life. And, frankly, we wish we were reading something else.
To pull us into your character's world, let us see him or her in action. In the opening scene of This Lullaby, Remy is meeting with her future step-father about wedding stuff because she's planning her mom's wedding. Her mom's fourth wedding.
I watched Social Network over the weekend. It opens with Mark getting dumped.
So Over It starts with Skylar running into her ex-boyfriend - who she still loves - at Blockbuster
with another girl.
Let your reader arrive fashionably late
The party should already be swinging when you open up your book.
By which I mean. This Lullaby doesn't open with Remy driving over to her future step-father's office. In Social Network, we drop into the scene in the middle of the conversation. We don't have to watch the main character go pick up his date. So Over It starts when Skylar spots Connor, not when she's at home with her sister and they decide to go get a movie.
I think the best example of this is Lost. I knew I was going to love that show when it opened on a close-up of Jack's face as he comes to after a plane crash. He has no idea where he is or what just happened, and we get to go for the surprising ride along with him. A more traditional place to start would have been on the plane, a couple minutes before the crash. I love what the writers chose instead.
So take a look at your opening and see if your character is doing something, or if you're starting your book too early.
As always, if you have writing questions, e-mail me.