Tricks to Engage your Readers from Janet Foxley

I’m delighted to welcome Janet Foxley to the blog, who has some great tips on getting the most out of your story’s opening lines.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

We all know how important the beginning of a book is. If it starts too slowly, the browsing book-buyer will put it back on the shelf; but much worse, as far as would-be published authors are concerned, the weary slush pile reader will stuff it into the stamped addressed envelope enclosed.

Some people advise you to introduce your protagonist and engage the reader’s sympathy for him by the end of the first chapter; others say by the end of the first page; still others say by the end of the first sentence.

So how do you plunge into your story really quickly, without getting bogged down in back story or description? How do you introduce a character the reader is going to care about, and set up a narrative that is going to keep him turning the pages, in just one sentence?

My trick is to use dialogue:

“‘Ma!’ shrieked Muncle, ‘Gritt’s upside-downing me!’”

This is how my first draft of Muncle Troggbegan, and that is how the published book still begins, fourteen drafts later. That one sentence takes us straight into the head of our protagonist, we immediately identify with him and feel for him. It also introduces two more of the main characters and tells us something about the way the protagonist relates to them. And it has one further hook: the made-up verb ‘to upside-down’ also helps to grab the reader’s attention.

Having written that, I can now afford a few sentences to explain that Muncle is a very small ten-year-old giant and Gritt is his normal-sized seven-year-old brother. I don’t need to say much more about Muncle’s plight because the readers are already working it out for themselves. So instead I move on to a sentence that helps the reader visualise the scene:

“Ma Trogg, a handsome giantess with a pleasing number of bristly warts, peered through the cloud of steam above her cauldron.”

This sentence isn’t just description – it has a very important second function: in telling us that ‘bristly warts’ are considered ‘handsome’ in the giant world, it also tells us that we can expect some humour. And humour is a particularly sought-after ingredient in books for younger readers, so I add a bit more:

“‘Gritt!’ she roared. ‘Put your brother down right now!’

‘But you told me to play with him till breakfast.’

‘I didn’t mean you should use him as a toy.’”

So now the reader knows who the story is about, what his problem is, and that there are going to be some chuckles. And we are still three lines from the bottom of the first page of double-spaced manuscript.

Now we can afford to introduce a few sentences of back story, slotted between passages of action and dialogue, so that the narrative is never held up by too much explanation.

And then the story takes off, because it isn’t just the reader who is well and truly inside the head of the protagonist. By starting with the protagonist’s own words, you put yourself, the writer, inside his head, too. You are not a narrator describing a fictitious world from the outside; you are inside that world experiencing it from the protagonist’s point of view – and that’s what makes your story come alive.

Try it for yourself. Go back to the beginning of your current work-in-progress and try starting it at the point when your protagonist first speaks. Then see if it makes a difference to the way you want to write everything that follows.

About the Author

Janet Foxley won the 2010 Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition for her book, Muncle Trogg. Following her success she has written a sequel, ‘Muncle Trogg and the Flying Donkey‘, and is working on a third Muncle book. ‘The House in the Forest’, her retelling of Hansel and Gretel, will be published by Harper Collins in an Easy Reading series next year.

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