blog,  On Writing

Four Ways to Grab the Reader’s Attention in the First Sentence

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t grab your reader in the first sentence, you could miss it.

This essay is a summary of the points made in my recent Write Naked, Die Famous Podcast on the topic of Beginnings. Use this article as a reference. Listen here.

There are so many things competing for our attention it’s even hard to focus on the important things, it’s hard to stay on task. We are easily distracted and hard pressed to really focus on something.

With fast-paced TV shows, high tech movies and the scandal, drama and salacious content in bite-sized portions on social media, how are we, as novelists, supposed to attract the attention of readers to commit to reading hundreds of pages, consuming hours of their lives while they live out our imagined stories in their minds?

It’s a hard task. It’s getting harder every day as our stamina and discipline for focus erodes. But it’s not an impossible task.

Four common ways authors grab their readers attention are:

ACTION

Drop the reader into the middle of the action.

When you drop the reader into the middle of the action you immediately create a sense of urgency while also forcing the reader to invest in the story by doing some of the work in creating the scene. If the reader begins in the middle of the action, she is forced to figure out what just happened, what caused this action to start, what is at stake, who are the players and what will happen next.

Great stories are a dance between reader and writer. If the writer tells too much, the reader is bored, or worse, insulted. A reader wants to wonder and create possibilities and compare them to the book. A reader wants to anticipate, predict and feel the satisfaction of being right and the surprise of being wrong.

Hunter S. Thompson does this in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.”

Thompson drops the reader into the desert right as the threshold is crossed between sobriety and hallucination, civilization and the desert, what is known and the unknown. We are on the brink of something intriguing; we want to read on.

In theatre, you only have one tool to grab the reader’s attention: dialogue. David Mamet, an incredible dramatic writer who has won the Pulitzer for Glengarry Glen Ross and Tony award for Speed the Plow, as well as numerous prizes for his television and movie scripts begins nearly all his plays and screenplays with an interruption.

Because theatre is a story through dialogue, the action isn’t a physical movement but conversation. We are dropped right in the middle of a conversation. Mamet begins many of his plays and screenplays with an interruption. To add mystery, forcing the audience to invest in the story by using their imaginations, Mamet often only gives us one part of the conversation.

He begins Oleanna, a drama about a professor accused of sexual harassment by a young female student, with the professor talking on the phone while the student patiently waits in his office for his time. Only hearing part of the conversation causes us to invest for a couple reasons. First, to understand what the conversation is about, we have to make assumptions and draw conclusions about what the speaker on the other end of the line is saying. Secondly, we feel like we are eavesdropping and have access to something we aren’t supposed to because it is clearly a private conversation not meant for us. Don’t underestimate the pleasure we get as readers and audiences in getting access to something that is supposed to be off limits.

“What did they say?

Did you speak
to the real estate…

Where is she?

Well, well.
Where are her notes?

The notes we took with her.

I took the notes?”

EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT IN CHARACTER

We get attached to the character when we learn something personal or private. We get invested in the character when we learn what they want, what obstacles they face and the struggle they are enduring in their search.

Writers do this by playing with a reader’s emotions. To get us emotionally invested, the writer wants to make the reader feel like she knows the hero personally, has access to their private desires and fears and is invested in them reaching their goals.

Make us hate what the protagonist hates, love what she loves, fear what he fears, want what he wants.

Voice and tone are critical to creating this intimacy.

In Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast with Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room, they talk about how in modern literature, voice has become the most compelling aspect of a book, more so even than plot. In fact, they argue that plot is no longer required as long as you have an engaging, compelling, almost hypnotic voice for your narrator.

Get your reader attached to the character and their struggle and they will want to keep reading.

Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

The casual tone makes the voice personal. Plus he suggests he will share the truth, not just the polished lies he tells most people. We want to know the truth. We aren’t most people. We prove it by sticking around to hear what he has to say. We are hooked.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”

We are swept up in the action and also worried about the character. He’s about to die.

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

“My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them. I was supposed to have a twin. When the doctor yanked me out, he said, there’s a good chance this child will be quite strong. This is the story my parents always told me, but I never really believed it.”

This is a book about an obsessive wrestler. As with Catcher in the Rye, we have the same suggestion that we will hear the truth as opposed to the glossy lies someone else would tell us. Besides that, the premise of the story is competition and we as readers love to root for someone, we love to share the struggle of a character who is giving it everything he’s got.

CURIOSITY HOOKED THE READER

Curiosity may kill cats but it hooks readers. You might open with something magical or mysterious. Or if your story is set in a more realistic world, you might start with taboo or controversy. These first lines will make the reader feel like she is indulging in a vice or setting on an adventure. It’s a strange new world. If done right, we can’t wait to learn all about it.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Shock and Horror

The last way to grab the reader’s attention is through shock. The fastest way to shock the reader is to say something extremely controversial, do something counter-intuitive or use sex or violence.

Paradise by Toni Morrison

“They shoot the white girl first.” 

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“ I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man.” 

The Good Guy by Kristen Roupenian

“By the time he was 35, the only way Ted could get hard and remain so for the duration of sexual intercourse was to pretend that his dick was a knife, and the woman he was fucking was stabbing herself with it.” 

Shock and horror will definitely get your readers attention but you will want to be careful because you are just as likely to repulse your reader and push them away as you are to hook and pull them in.

The style you use to grab your readers attention should be consistent with the style and theme of your story or book. It should be like the fragrance wafting from the kitchen of the meal you are preparing to eat, whetting your appetite for more, making you hungry to dig in.

To read more of my articles on the craft of writing, check out my website or listen to my podcast Write Naked, Die Famous. Subscribe to my newsletter to get monthly announcements and updates on new content. To show your appreciation and support me in writing more, please support me on Patreon.

Four Ways to Grab the Reader’s Attention in the First Sentence

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