Sunday, November 13, 2011


The moment you open a book, you hear (or don't hear) a voice in your ear urging you to jump into the story.

It’s not a voice that you hear consciously.

It’s more like a gentle whisper

Maybe you pick up a book because you recognize the name of the author.

Or because you're drawn to the title.

Or you like the subject.

But none of these things matter as you begin to read the first line.

And none of these things will encourage you to jump into the story if the writer hasn’t communicated to you a compelling reason to jump.

How does a writer leave you no choice?

What is it on the page that pulls you into the story, that demands that you jump, and leaves you without any hesitation of plunging into the story?

If a story is told well, you'll jump the instant your eyes touch the words on the page.

Here's an example of a passage that encouraged me to jump:
That day when I got home and saw the mail, I did something really stupid. I mean, ultra-intensely, radioactively idiotic. But before I tell you what it was, I have to tell you a little bit about my dad and me. And math. Otherwise, you won’t understand WHY I did it. (From Jordan Sonnenblick’s After Ever After)
It was at the end of the first sentence, when the main character describes himself doing something “stupid,” that I jumped. My curiosity was raised enough to go on to the next sentence, which really raised my curiosity with words like “ultra-intensely” and “radioactively” and “idiotic.” And then Sonnenblick does something interesting: he puts on the brakes just as the reader leaves the diving board. He says, “But before I tell you what it was... “ And by the end of that phrase, I was no longer jumping. I was in the water, reading, wanting to know what happened next so that I could get back to whatever the character did that was so stupid when he saw the mail.

Here's another example:
The foal was born without eyes. Just empty sockets.
When Declan cleared the membrane and saw what had happened, he let out a wail which so startled the mare that she staggered to get up.
Declan leapt to her head.
“My poor old baby! Lie still, you stupid old cow. What have you done, you stupid girl?”
“It’s because she’s so old. Twenty-three! I told you it would kill her,” said his wife, Myra. “This is worse. Worse than killing her. I’ll ring the veterinary.”
“What for?”
“To lay it to sleep, of course.”
“No, You’ll not do that.”
“What do you mean, no?”
“Give us time. There’s no hurry Let the mare settle.”
“It’s best at once. For the mare.”
“Not for me, though,” Declan said. “It’s not best for me. “Don’t ring yet.”
Word soon went round that crazy Declan insisted on keeping his blind foal. It was a filly and he wanted to keep the mare’s famous bloodline going, his last chance to make a fortune. They all thought he was mad. (from Blind Beauty by K.M. Peyton)
I jumped after the first sentence: The foal was born without eyes.

It's such an emotionally gripping sentence, a surprise–not something one hears about every day–and the second sentence--“Just empty sockets.”--gives weight and emotional depth to the scene. By the next sentence, it’s as if the character has given rise to the wail that's hidden inside me, the sense of unfairness that an innocent horse be born blind. And then there’s the question: what's to be done with a blind horse? Well, of course, you’d have to put it down; it’s the only merciful thing. But, no, Declan won’t have it. He can’t, his love for the creature–even if it’s blind–keeps him from doing it. Not just his desire for a fortune, his desire to keep something rare and beautiful alive another generation.

What about you? What kind of scene or chapter openings compel you to jump into a story? Can you read the examples above and explain why they do–or don’t–make you jump? Can you provide examples from your own favorites, or perhaps from your own work, which succeed (or fail) at making you want to jump into the story? Write us and let us know.

For more information on urging your reader to jump into your story, visit:


Sharron said...

I was ready to jump (in the first example) until I read that the character was going to explain. I would stop right there.

The second one gripped me completely. Yes - the first line did it. The wail continued it, and the 'crazy Declan' sealed it.

Good examples. Showed me exactly what I need to know.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Sharron. Glad to hear the examples were helpful.