Ground your readers and they will follow you anywhere
We know the importance of a good beginning. First line, first paragraph, first page is your opportunity as a storyteller to hook your reader, to get them interested enough to want to read more.
Nelson Bentley, wonderful poet and professor at the University of Washington for 40 years, used to say this about poem beginnings, “Give the readers a place to stand, and then you can take them anywhere.” This same advice holds true for all writing.
In journalism, the fives W’s (who, what, where, when, why) and one H (how) is a formula drilled into young journalists for getting the full story. They are instructed to get as many W’s into the lead as possible. But how do we do this in art without turning it into dry, boring facts?
I call it grounding. In the manuscript I’m currently working on I have two point-of-view characters. Chapter one begins with the protagonist in her everyday environment. Chapter two is from the antagonist’s point of view (but we don’t know he’s the antagonist yet). I want this chapter to be purposefully mysterious. But in order to be mysterious, and leave the reader intrigued, I need to ground them first.
This is how I begin chapter two: He stood on the second-story balcony, overlooking the ravine that circled three sides of his property. It was nearly summer. Lush mosses covered saplings and weak, older trees that had fallen over the years. Pine, cedar, birch and hemlock surrounded both sides of the deep, narrow gash in the earth.
Which of the W’s did I answer?
Who: He — I didn’t name him yet, but we know he’s a man
What: He’s standing, looking out over the ravine
Where: On a second-story balcony
When: Almost summer
Why: Not sure yet, but you get the feeling he’s reminiscing, more of the why is to come
Author Dean Koontz will often begin a book with some W’s answered in the first line. Here are a few of his beginnings:
From Watchers: On his thirty-sixth birthday, May 18, Travis Cornell rose at five o’clock in the morning.
From Dark Rivers of the Heart: With the woman on his mind and a deep uneasiness in his heart, Spencer Grant drove through the glistening night, searching for the red door.
From Breathless: A moment before the encounter, a strange expectancy overcame Grady Adams, a sense that he and Merlin were not alone.
Browse your own library. Open five to ten books at random and see how many of the W’s are contained in the first line or first paragraph. See how the author grounds his readers. Next, choose a book with multiple viewpoints and see how the author introduces the different characters.
Look at your own work-in-progress. Are you giving your readers a place to stand so that they’ll follow you anywhere?