Any piece of creative writing needs to capture the attention of the reader. Failure to do so can have a number of consequences:
- Readers may read the first few pages, lose interest, and give up on the book.
- Readers may read the whole book, but because it has not captured their attention they tell others it is poorly written (if they express their disapproval online it can potentially dissuade thousands of potential readers form reading your work)
- People may skim read the book and do not really gain the full meaning and potential of the book.
So what can an author do? Any aspiring writer wishes for people to read their book and be enthralled by it. They might also wish that those readers would then tell others how wonderful it is, which could stimulate further sales and guarantee a readership for future novels.
There are a number of ways to capture attention and generate interest in your readers:
A strong opening line can really attract attention. It draws the reader in so that they feel they want to know more. In order to captivate and intrigue the reader the opening line may be:
- Disturbing or shocking
- Absurd or incredulous
The opening line need not be anything too profound. It can be used as a springboard to build a crescendo of thoughts and feelings over the course of several paragraphs or pages, but it must not be banal.
Some well-known opening lines are as follows:
“Not every 13 year old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty”
- The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (Charlotte Doyle)
“No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
- War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells)
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
- Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier)
“My suffering left me sad and gloomy.”
- Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
- 1984 (George Orwell)
If we examine Orwell’s opening line above. The clocks are striking thirteen. That is odd, it stimulates our thoughts and sustains our attention - we want to know more. Why are the clocks striking thirteen? Then Orwell draws us into the world of 1984. We are transfixed by that one sentence. We are intrigued to read on and discover more.
If you were to peruse the first line or paragraph of some of the books in your possession you would notice how effective they can be in capturing attention.
The First Chapters
It is often said that the first few pages can make or break a novel. Many would-be publishers will not read past the first few pages if the author has failed to hold their attention.
Similarly, many readers will read a few pages and then give up on a book if they are not sufficiently interested. Some people have relatively low tolerance levels when it comes to reading books. They may set themselves targets such as if they cannot become interested in the book after the first chapter or first fifty pages they will give up reading it. Others may persist until the end even though they did not particularly enjoy it.
The first few chapters are therefore of utmost importance in terms of attracting and sustaining readers. If the reader has read fifty pages and does not really care if Mildred has been kidnapped by aliens or Albert is planning a bank heist, they will soon give up reading. A writer needs to be able to make the reader care about their characters, and care about them quickly. Authors who write a series of novels using the same characters, swiftly re-describe the main characters, so that readers are “up to speed” on their characteristics:
- Georgina – the feisty, hard-working, party-loving girl who has bipolar disorder...
- James – the ostensibly boring, uptight business man who has a secret lover...
A writer may spend some time building up the character to their reader or they may express it in a single clear sentence. The following examples just so happen to be opening lines too.
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad”.
- Scaramouch (Raphael Sabatini)
“Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few that made him worthwhile.”
- This Side of Paradise (F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Here we are instantly enlightened that one character has a gift of laughter and the other with only a few discernible worthwhile traits.
Whilst readers must care about the characters in some way, not all characters have to be likable. The reader might only care about the villain because they want to see them receive retribution for their crimes. This encourages them to continue reading.
In addition to the characters, the first few chapters should also set the scene and start the story. An author may create fascinating characterisations, but if little happens in the story the reader may still lose interest. The plot must be developed and the stage set in a way that grips the reader.
The unexpected event can be a great way to attract attention. Everyone has watched a film or read a book in which a main character is suddenly disposed of completely unexpectedly. You may have believed that as a main character they would be present throughout the story, but instead the writer has chosen to shock their audience by removing them. This is another tactic used to attract attention.
In the film 'Dressed to Kill' the actress Angie Dickinson played a main character. However, only a short time into the film she is murdered. It is totally unexpected and thereby shocks the audience. Other examples include Janet Leigh in 'Psycho' and Mufasa in 'The Lion King' who both die off quickly. We do not expect a main character who we have developed an interest in and care about to die.
Nevertheless, authors should not use the unexpected too often, or else it loses its element of surprise and intrigue and may become too predictable. The story may also begin to lose its credibility, and make little sense. At this point, an author could alienate their audience.
There are many other ways to incorporate the unexpected without sacrificing a character. For instance, a main character may simply do something unexpected, or an unexpected event may occur. In Truman Capote’s 'In Cold Blood', we know from the very start who the murderers are, but Capote draws us in by unravelling how it happened. Whilst it is not completely unexpected, but the reader is captivated to discover why.
If you wish to use the element of surprise in writing, it must be believable.
Last lines can be used to capture attention, but in a different way. The last lines are those which the reader takes with them at the close of the story. Powerful last lines may reverberate in the psyche of the reader for days, weeks, or even a lifetime. They may leave the reader pondering what happens next, or feeling exhilarated at having just experienced a wonderful read.