Friday, October 15, 2010

Pull Your Reader into the Plot

by Jean Henry Mead

A strong opening sentence is obviously the best way to drag your reader into the story:

~The body was hanging at eye level when Carolyn entered the room.

~ The snow was so deep that only Snerdly’s cap was visible.

~ A foot hung from Fido’s mouth.

~Today is probably the last day of my life.

I’m sure you can think of better opening sentences to suspend disbelief while inviting your reader into your fictional world. It’s a writer’s job to seduce and lure--one carefully crafted step at a time to an adventure away from the real world.

The reader needs to know where you’re taking him and why. Is your fictional world believable? Fantasy writers can get away with great stretches of the imagination but mystery writers need to stick to the facts. So don’t have a body suspended in mid-air unless you have a logical reason to do so.

Your opening sentence had better lead into the main theme of the plot. Don’t start with a couple kissing on a park bench unless one or both are shot or witness a nearby killing. And don’t start with boring backstory or it won’t be long before you lose your reader. Jump immediately into the action. Keep your reader breathless for pages before you let her up for air.

Motivation and goals are essential in developing your plot. Another good way to lose your reader is to have your protagonist risk his life simply because he had his foot stepped on. If the killer murdered the character’s mother, you then have a believable reason for him to go after the culprit. Some amateur sleuth stories border on the ridiculous when ordinary people decide to trap a killer simply because they think they can. Give them good reasons to place their own lives in danger.

Don’t people your plots with too many characters. Mark Twain wrote that the best way to get rid of characters when they’re no longer needed is to have them jump down a well. Better yet, make sure characters are only there to further the plot and can be eliminated when you tie up all the story’s loose ends.

Killing off characters can be painful for the writer but extraneous side plots can kill a story. In the old western films cowboys used to ride off into the sunset with the townspeople staring after them. Not so with mystery novels, no matter what the sub genre. We want to leave the reader wanting more. Readers like to solve the mystery on their own before the conclusion, so don’t make the killer’s identity the most unlikely candidate in your plot. Be fair when you plant red herrings and clues so that the reader will be able say, “Aha, I should have known it was him (or her). “

What’s the best opening sentence you’ve written or read?


Mike Dennis said...

Across the bar, a lean blond with a missing front tooth is massaging my tits with his eyes, and I get an idea.

VOLUNTARY MADNESS, by Vicki Hendricks

Jean Henry Mead said...

My condolences, Mike, if that's the best first sentence you've ever read.

Morgan Mandel said...

So true, the first sentence is a big responsibility for a writer. Often it can make or break a book.

Morgan Mandel