I love editing. It offers an opportunity to read authors who’ll succeed at gathering fans and making bestseller lists. And it’s great to be there from the beginning to see their careers take off. It also provides a chance to help aspiring writers—if they want it—to develop their craft. Some are “naturals”, some are not. It’s all good, though. You become as good, as great, as you want to be if you’re willing to go the distance. This means learning and applying what you learn.
As we well know, it’s [usually] the opening chapter or prologue that will grab readers and keep them wanting to read. As such, it should be strong, compelling, and reel in readers like a seasoned fisherman bringing in a sailfish. Countless “he said” and “she said” dialogue tags won’t do it. Nor will a John-did-this-and-then-did-that style. The show-don’t-tell approach isn’t terribly gripping, though some may debate that and that’s fine (to each his/her own).
Let’s focus on what does prompt readers to continue reading. First and foremost: details (descriptions). I’ve used the painting picture analogy before, but it’s a viable one. When you draw images for readers—describe characters, reveal emotions, detail locations—your story comes alive.
I’m writing the sixth Triple Threat Investigation Agency book and, given disco plays a part in it, I’ve been listening to the music and catching the odd movie. One that so perfectly “describes” what a movie and character are all about in the opening credits is Saturday Night Fever. It’s one I’d recommend for writers to see how details—infinite infinitesimal ones—can paint a fabulous, vibrant picture. Those types of details can easily be applied in an opening chapter or prologue.
The Bee Gees sing a catchy tune (marking a distinct period in music history) as we view various shots of NYC, including the subway. Tony Manero swings a can of paint as he strolls along a Brooklyn sidewalk with a confident swagger. We see stores and everyday people. It’s not a rich neighborhood. He sports a not-one-hair-out-of-place coif and fairly decent daytime clothes: black leather jacket, burgundy polyester shirt, and well-shined leather shoes. A large gold cross hangs from his neck. He eyes pretty women. Stopping at Penny’s Pizza, he grabs two slices and chows down as he continues walking. He sees a shirt in a shop and pays $5 to put it on layaway. Finally, he arrives at a hardware store.
What have we gleaned from those details? We know the setting is NYC. Our main character most likely lives there. He’s cocky and thinks himself a lady’s man. He cares about his appearance (we see him comparing his shoes to a pair in a window). Given the neighborhood, the $5 for the layaway, and the pizza, we can assume his finances are limited. The paint can may mean he’s going to paint something at home, or he’s a painter who’s not working at that moment.
If we were applying this to paper [or laptop], we could flesh it out more. Not by [too] much. We don’t need to inundate readers with an overabundance of facts. We simply provide enough—yes, the infinitesimal details—to paint that defining picture.