When readers dive into a new time and place, it can take a moment for them to sort through what’s happening. This goes double when they are meeting new characters or being introduced to a world for the first time. This means the first passages of a book can be disorienting indeed.
Unfortunately, our efforts to hook readers can make it worse, and once readers are disoriented, they’ll be too busy figuring out what we’re saying to appreciate our hooks. Let’s cover some ways to reduce the up-front cognitive burden and make it easier for readers to immerse themselves in the story immediately.
1. Focus on Fewer Ideas
In our eagerness to deliver something intriguing, it’s easy to pack too many ideas up front. We hope that if we throw lots of teasers at the wall, one or more of them will stick. Unfortunately, this is not only more disorienting, but it often makes our opening hook weaker. Even mysterious references usually need a little development before they feel mysterious.
A great example is the opening of Blindsight.
It didn’t start out here. Not with the scramblers or Rorschach, not with Big Ben or Theseus or the vampires. Most people would say it started with the Fireflies, but they’d be wrong. It ended with all those things.
Author Peter Watts is throwing out a bunch of unfamiliar terms and world elements, such as vampires. This doesn’t give him any time to offer context or explain any of it. Instead of evoking the imagination, it creates a jumble of impressions that don’t add up to anything.
This problem is particularly likely when a story opens with exposition. Because exposition offers a lot of flexibility, it sometimes allows writers to create better opening hooks – even though it’s less immersive than a real-time scene. However, the same flexibility also means it requires more care; it’s very easy to pack too much into a small space. For those with a complex world that needs explanation, I have an article specifically on introducing world terminology.
Real-time narration can still pack in too many ideas if it introduces a lot of story elements, such as characters, all at once. And even if the first paragraph is written as unfolding action, an opening scene is still likely to include some exposition to fill readers in.
Take this example from The Blade Itself.
Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. […]
The Dogman had been with him until a moment before, he was sure, but there wasn’t any sign of him now. As for the others, there was no telling. Some leader, getting split up from his boys like that. He should’ve been trying to get back, but the Shanka were all around. He could feel them moving between the trees, his nose was full of the smell of them. Sounded as if there was some shouting somewhere on his left, fighting maybe.
The first paragraph tells us what Logen is doing at that moment and works in Logen’s environment at the same time. So far, so good. But to give the scene more tension, author Joe Abercrombie wanted to let readers know that Logen has been separated from his fellows and is now surrounded by enemies. He does that too fast, throwing in the “Dogman,” the “others,” the “boys,” and the “Shanka.” If Abercrombie had cut that down and focused on either Logen’s missing fellows or his enemies here, it would be a lot easier to sort out.
Instead of trying to fit lots of ideas in your opening, choose one idea that makes a good hook and spend your first paragraph developing it. Then slowly introduce other ideas, making sure their relationship to what you’ve already said is clear. This allows you to offer information and build interest without giving readers more than they can handle at once.
For instance, below is the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
Adams creates a picture of a galaxy and then builds on that to transition readers from looking at the galaxy to thinking about Earth. Then, he gives Earth a problem and spends time elaborating on that problem rather than jumping right to another hook and leaving the issue with Earth underdeveloped. Altogether, he’s moving at a pace much slower than Blindsight’s. This makes it easy for him to fit in witty lines and carefully work toward the next intriguing hook.
2. Give Context for What You Cover
You don’t need to set the entire scene in your opening paragraph. It’s actually okay to describe an intriguing pocket watch and delay mentioning that this pocket watch is hanging over a cliff until paragraph two or three. The key is that you need to supply appropriate context for whatever you choose to cover. So if you start describing the physical environment, don’t leave out the big cliff.
For instance, take the opening to Beyond Lies the Wub.
They had almost finished with the loading. Outside stood the Optus, his arms folded, his face sunk in gloom. Captain Franco walked leisurely down the gangplank, grinning.
Part of the issue in the above passage is that Philip K. Dick has thrown in an unnecessary new term: Optus. Cognitive burden is cumulative, and every issue with disorientation in your opening will make the other issues worse.
Even setting aside that one term, readers don’t have enough context. They have to fill in that the gangplank is attached to a ship, and then they still won’t know what kind of ship. Is it a spaceship or a seagoing ship? The Optus is introduced before it’s clear who the “they” in the first sentence is, and even by the end of the paragraph, readers are only guessing “they” refers to Captain Franco’s crew. The paragraph makes readers do a lot of work assembling a puzzle only to end up with an incomplete picture.
Let’s look at another example from a client’s work, used with permission.
We thought you’d never get here. When we saw the flare of your engines, we thought it was the end of the world. Our apologies for the ruckus. Once you hear what’s happened, maybe you’ll understand.
This opening has many intriguing statements in it, and in covering so many, it leaves readers to guess all the context surrounding them. Readers don’t know who anyone is or what the setting is. Without that information, it’s hard to imagine these events. Instead, the writer could have first opened with “When we saw the flare of your engines, we thought it was the end of the world,” and then explained why they thought it was the end of the world in a way that fills in the setting and the people involved.
This doesn’t mean you can’t give your readers a puzzle, but remember that every puzzle box shows the whole picture on the front so shoppers know immediately what they’ll get by piecing the puzzle together. The opening paragraphs need more than puzzle pieces; they need a pretty picture, too.
For instance, below is the opening of Skin of the Sea, which paints a clear picture while working in sources of threat to build an opening hook.
I circle the ship with the sharks, slipping between dark waves. The water is layered with cold currents, sea creatures, and a ship that slices through it with cargo holds full of stolen people. I swim underneath the swells, away from the gaze of men and just out of the reach of jaws.
Author Natasha Bowen uses a broad brush to give readers all the big picture information they need. The protagonist is swimming in the water alongside a group of sharks, under a ship that is carrying slaves.
3. Make Labels Extra Clear
During an opening, readers will be introduced to new terms, phrases, and story elements that they’ll need to recall later. This will be especially difficult for them because there is so much they’ll need to sort out. If you dribble in a few things at a time, they can learn them and slowly build up their knowledge base.
However, if you switch up the labels you use to refer to things you’ve just introduced, that will give them a real hard time – even if those labels seem synonymous or you offer contextual clues.
One of the biggest culprits is names. If you have just one name in your first paragraph and you include that exact same name in your second paragraph, you should be fine. But authors often introduce someone’s full name and then follow that with part of that name or a nickname. Sometimes this happens paragraphs later when readers have mostly forgotten the initial name.
- In Blindsight, Watts mentions Robert Paglino and then calls him “Pag” two paragraphs later. That’s a bad idea anywhere in a novel, much less in the opening.
- In The Tommyknockers, King mentions Anderson, Peter, and Jim Gardener in a large paragraph. Later in the paragraph, he throws in “Gard.” Even though context helps establish that Gard is Jim Gardener, there’s so much going on that this isn’t easy to piece together.
- In Beyond Lies the Wub, Dick introduces Captain Franco and then calls him either Captain or Franco for the rest of the piece. Some readers probably thought he was two different people.
If you want to introduce a full name followed by a nickname, mention the nickname right after the full name. However, consider whether you need the full name; readers probably won’t remember it anyway. If you want to use either a name or title, use them together several times to start and then continue using them together once in while.
Another great example of confusing labels is from House of Earth and Blood, in the Crescent City series.
There was a wolf at the gallery door.
Which meant it must be Thursday, which meant Bryce had to be really gods-damned tired if she relied on Danika’s comings and goings to figure out what day it was.
The heavy metal door to Griffin Antiquities thudded with the impact of the wolf’s fist—a fist that Bryce knew ended in metallic-purple painted nails in dire need of a manicure. A heartbeat later, a female voice barked, half-muffled through the steel, “Open the Hel up, B. It’s hot as shit out here!”
This opening is very disorienting, partly because author Sarah Maas doesn’t make it clear that the wolf and Danika are the same person. That means it’s jarring to discover the wolf has painted fingernails. The gallery is also part of Griffin Antiquities, but that’s not clear either. Readers are capable of figuring these things out, but doing that work will keep them from enjoying the story right away.
For a positive example, Patricia A. McKillip brings out several names in the opening paragraph of Od Magic.
Brenden Vetch found the Od School of Magic beneath a cobbler’s shoe on a busy street in the ancient city of Kelior. The sign hung over the door of a tiny shop that badly needed paint. Brenden gazed incredulously at the door, then again at the sign. Od, it insisted, in neat black letters, School of Magic. From the sign a shoe descended: a wooded clog, sturdy enough to sail, fastened to the sign with a dowel through its center like a mast.
McKillip names “Brenden Vetch,” and then she calls him the expected “Brenden” two sentences later. The Od School of Magic is also repeated twice in a consistent manner. That should make both of these names easier to remember. I think McKillip could have dropped both the initial “Vetch” and the city name of “Kelior” from the paragraph, but readers also aren’t asked to remember them in the following paragraphs.
4. Keep the Narration Consistent
Another common source of cognitive burden is narration that changes. It might switch pronouns, change tense, move between thoughts and description, or zoom into or out of characters’ heads. While some of these problems are simply a matter of badly written perspective, many of these transitions would be fine if they appeared later in the story or weren’t packed together.
A great example of shifting narration is in the opening of Maximum Ride.
The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective. Take right now, for instance.
Run! Come on, run! You know you can do it.
I gulped deep lungfuls of air. My brain was on hyperdrive; I was racing for my life. My one goal was to escape. Nothing else mattered.
Above, author James Patterson shifts tense, uses second person and then first person, and goes from narrator exposition to immediate thoughts to real time description. Even for shifts that are technically accurate, this is difficult to sort out and makes for a jarring experience.
Here’s another example from the opening teaser of The Remnant Chronicles that is clearly mixing multiple things together.
Journey’s end. The promise. The hope.
Tell me again, Ama. About the light.
I search my memories. A dream. A story. A blurred remembrance.
I was smaller than you, child.
The line between truth and sustenance unravels. The need. The hope. My own grandmother telling stories to fill me because there was nothing more. I look at this child, windlestraw, a full stomach not even visiting her dreams. Hopeful. Waiting. I pull her thin arms, gather the feather of flesh into my lap.
The narration above changes so much that I’m not sure whether using two different indentations for the italicized text is a mistake. After reading a few lines, we can guess the italics indicate dialogue and that it’s told from the perspective of a grandmother telling a story to her granddaughter, but it takes effort to piece together. My guess is that author Mary E. Pearson deliberately told it in a fragmented manner hoping to make it more mysterious. Instead, it just reduces the impact of this fragmented scene.
If you’re italicizing text in your opening, that warrants another look at what you’re doing. Italics generally indicate some kind of change in the narration, but it can indicate different things. That means readers have to do some work to figure out why it’s there, and you want them to have to think as little as possible in your opening.
If you need to shift the narration, do it as infrequently as you can, and make sure you have adequate transitions or context so readers are prepared for the change. For instance, take the opening to Stephen King’s short story That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French.
Floyd, what’s that over there? Oh shit.
The man’s voice speaking these words was vaguely familiar, but the words themselves were just a disconnected snip of dialogue, the kind of thing you heard when you were channel-surfing with the remote. There was no one named Floyd in her life.
After the line of text set off in italics, King spends much of the next paragraph explaining what this strange line is. He doesn’t just stick it in and move on to barely related narration.
5. Minimize Metaphors
We use many types of metaphors, and some of them come more naturally to readers than others. If you love fancy metaphors, it’s not impossible to make one work in your opening paragraph, but it’s another source of cognitive burden. Readers have to do a little more work to translate figurative language, and sometimes they won’t translate it correctly.
For instance, let’s go back to the opening paragraph of Philip K. Dick’s Beyond Lies the Wub.
They had almost finished with the loading. Outside stood the Optus, his arms folded, his face sunk in gloom. Captain Franco walked leisurely down the gangplank, grinning.
When I first read this, I thought “his face sunk in gloom” meant it was dusk outside and his face was in shadow. It’s actually supposed to mean the Optus is grumpy. If more context had been given, I might not have misinterpreted it, but we can’t always count on the rest of the paragraph going smoothly.
For another example, let’s look at the opening of Battlefield Earth.
“Man,” said Terl, “is an endangered species.”
The hairy paws of the Chamco brothers hung suspended above the broad keys of the laser-bash game. The cliffs of Char’s eyebrows drew down over his yellow orbs as he looked up in mystery. Even the steward, who had been padding quietly about picking up her saucepans, lumbered to a halt and stared.
All the characters being introduced are one source of cognitive burden. Another is the figurative language: hanging paws, cliffs for eyebrows, and yellow orbs instead of eyes. It all adds up, making this paragraph harder to absorb and reducing reader immersion.
Because we like to use pretty metaphors to impress readers, we’re especially likely to overdo them in our openings, when we’re most eager to impress. And besides the cognitive burden, metaphors can go wrong in a variety of ways.
If your goal is simply to make your description evocative, you can reduce the risk by doing that in other ways. Take the opening of The Gunslinger by Stephen King.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death.
This description has some anthropomorphism, with the desert standing and the mountains sketching themselves. While it’s possible for anthropomorphism to be misinterpreted, a desert and mountain standing and sketching literally is so unlikely that it isn’t confusing. King also makes a comparison to eternity, but using “what looked like” makes the role of eternity very clear. The devil-grass adds a great touch to the atmosphere, making the desert feel more creepy and menacing.
Much of the rhetoric surrounding fiction makes it easy to forget that the craft is about clear communication as much as anything else. If you lose that, the story will be lost as well.
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