To write a great beginning that will keep the reader engaged, we’ve got to do three things: grab their attention, hook them with a promise and convince them that this story is the one they need to read. Convincing them takes a combination of persuasion and authority. Once we have their attention, enticing them with a promise is part of the persuasion — if the hook promises a payoff they are interested in, access to special information, a thrilling suspense, an intriguing character, a mystery, etc. they will be persuaded to keep reading but only if they believe the promise will be fulfilled.
To believe the promise will be fulfilled they need to trust either the writer or the narrator, or both. This isn’t to say that the writer has to be the absolute authority on a subject, or even that the narrator has to be believable. This is fiction, after all, that misty view on the world that combines reality and imagination in various degrees and potencies. A place where both reliable and unreliable narrators can tell great, gripping, unforgettable stories. It isn’t the accuracy of the story that matters but our belief that the experience we are hoping to get from reading will be fulfilled. We don’t want to read a mystery that isn’t solved, just like we don’t want to read a romance with no spark.
We read stories to have life distilled into a more potent elixir. We read to learn, to experience, to feel… and we expect, demand even, to get that payoff. A reader who isn’t getting the experience she wants from reading will stop reading, and as I said in Mastering the Hook, your biggest job as a writer is to keep the reader reading.
We build trust as writers by following some of the basic rules and conventions of writing. You can break the rules if you wish, but when you do, you have to work harder to build trust. I can spell words wrong if I want to, but the reader won’t know if it’s intentional or careless and if she suspects it’s careless, she will probably stop reading. Why should she put more effort into reading than I put into writing?
Beyond grammar and spelling, there are genres that have established conventions writers follow. A mystery has to have something to solve, a romance will have a meeting, followed by a build-up to love, then an obstacle and finally a happy ending. Readers who read these genres will be disappointed and probably angry if they find out that a story presented as a mystery doesn’t have a resolution or a romance doesn’t have a happy ending.
You can learn more about the conventions of a plot for commercial fiction in Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid.
But not all stories are plot-driven. Some are character-driven. Many are idea-driven. Some are literary and have fewer traditional conventions to follow. Some might be more poetic, with what seems like unlimited creative license, but still, the reader needs to trust she is getting something from reading and it is the writer’s job to convince her that her time and energy are well spent.
It isn’t just the nitty gritty details that matter but also how you tell the story. Are there too many tangents? Do you have inconsistencies in your characters? Is your timeline too complicated or confusing? Because we are reading a condensed version of the larger story, we want to see only the essential elements. Including scenes, characters, events or anything that doesn’t move the story forward or serve the story in some way risks boring or losing the trust of your reader.
This is where a final story stands out from a draft. In a draft, you may not have all the elements of your story in place, you may have paragraphs that wander. These need to be edited out.
If you don’t know where you are going, what will happen or what is necessary for the story, your reader will pick up on that quickly. If the reader doesn’t trust you know where the story is going, how will she trust that she should stick around for the ride?
John Irving writes complex, playful, engaging books and we let him take us on his wild journey because we trust we will get to the end, we trust our time is not wasted because everything he writes, is somehow in service of the story.
Narrative confidence translates to the page, transfers to the reader and builds the trust that allows the reader to let go, suspend disbelief, imagine and get lost in the story.
The best way to ensure you have that confidence is to study the craft of writing and know your story. Do the preparation, read and study the best and then edit out the excess. However you move forward from there, don’t waste the reader’s time.