Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Make It Quick: Good Beginnings and Short Attention Spans, by Chris Tebbetts

Story beginnings are hard for me to nail down. It’s usually when I have the most information I want to impart to the reader (by way of exposition), but it’s also that key moment in my relationship with the audience, where I really want to pull them in with story. As they say, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. 

Everyone talks about having a strong hook at the top of your novel. Often, that starts with a great opening line. The classic example in my mind is from CHARLOTTE’S WEB:  “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Talk about immediately established interest, stakes, and story!  

But don’t stop there. A good hook might take the form of an immediate problem a character is facing; an action sequence; a simmering promise of something about to happen; a compelling voice; or even a prologue, which is one way to jump right into action and then backtrack for exposition a bit later. Whatever you do, remember that your young reader is sitting there on page one, wondering whether or not this book is going to be worth her time. It’s our job as authors to answer with a resounding yes, and then to keep that promise. 

Next question: Where does your story (not your novel, but your story) really begin?  Once you know that, see how close to that moment you can get on page one. Some amount of exposition is going to be necessary, of course. But you might be surprised at how much information—things that might seem essential to you, especially in the first draft phase—can actually wait until later. It’s very easy to get attached to everything you want to say up front, but that doesn’t always mean you have to say it right away, or, sometimes, at all. One of the most common pieces of feedback I give in manuscript critiques is about making cuts at the beginning and starting the story more quickly.  Sometimes that means cutting a few sentences, a few paragraphs, or even (more often than you might think) a chapter or two. 

Is all this focus on fast beginnings the product of a short-attention-span generation?  Maybe so, but in practical terms, it is what it is. Linda Sue Park talks about how young readers today come to story first not through words, but through imagery (i.e., on the million screens we have in our lives now), and how it’s up to us, as writers, to keep up with that fact, and to reflect it in our storytelling. 

AND MY CAVEAT, ALWAYS: To borrow from Robert McKee's book, STORY, these kinds of writing guidelines are about "form, not formula." Which is to say, if you have a dynamite manuscript with a quiet start or a slow-burn of a beginning, and you're sure that's what the story really needs, then by all means, follow your gut. For every truism and market-driven consideration, there are some countless number of fantastic, convention-breaking books just waiting to be the exception to the rule. 

Happy writing! 


  1. Great advice! And isn't EB White just the gold standard for everything? First and last lines of that book...perfection!

    1. The Charlotte's Web line flies in the face of some folks' conventional wisdom about not beginning with dialogue...but honestly, I've never been down with that "rule," anyway. :-)

  2. That's so interesting about coming to a story first through imagery!

    1. Everyone has their gurus....Linda Sue is definitely one of mine. Nobody talks about craft in a way that I can relate to (and feel reinforced in) more than she does, in my experience.