An author has about 500 words (or roughly two pages) to hook her audience. Think about it: when you’re scanning the shelves looking for a new book, you start with the first page, right? You don’t open the book in the middle. If you download an ebook sample, you’re given the first chapter, not the last.
Novel-writing is, in my opinion, a constant struggle to balance character development with plot. This is also true – perhaps even more so – of a book’s opening. In approximately 500 words a writer has to (1) create a character you care about/identify with and (2) hint at the danger that character will face as the story unfolds.
Let me give you an example. Here’s the opening from Stolen Angels: The Kidnapped Girls of Uganda by Canadian author Kathy Cook (published by Penguin Books):
October 10, 1996
“Sister, the rebels are here,” the watchman whispered outside Sister Rachele Fassera’s window at 2:15 a.m.
Sister Rachele, forty-nine, a slight, grey-haired Italian nun, jumped out of bed and ran down the hall to Sister Alba Brulo, the Mother Superior. She had horrifying news. The two nuns ran outside their convent toward the entry gate for their adjacent school, St. Mary’s School for Girls, one of Uganda’s best academies. But as they approached, they saw that the gated entrance was floodlit with the torches of the rebels. Crouching under cover of pitch-black night, the two white women, both missionary nuns of the Comboni Sisters, crept around the perimeter to the dormitories at the back of the school, where they hoped to alert the girls before the rebels found them.
But once there they saw that the rebels’ torchlights already surrounded the residences. Rifle butts banged against the residence doors. “Open up! Open up! Or we’ll come in and get you!” the men in camouflage military fatigues shouted.
The sisters stepped back into the banana plantation behind the school to hide. It seemed the best solution. Sister Rachele didn’t think the rebels would be able to get the girls. The dormitory doors were made of reinforced steel and the windows were protected with iron bars. Provided that none of the girls opened the door from inside, she figured the rebels would eventually move on. But if the rebels saw the nuns, they could force the keys from them.
As the night hours passed, the nuns hid behind a bush and prayed. For some of that time they heard a dull, steady pounding. Not once was there a cry or a scream. While she hid, Sister Alba thought about the day’s events leading up to this attack. Two sets of families had unexpectedly arrived earlier that day and pulled their daughters from the school. Sister Alba had told them that, since midterm exams were soon starting, now wasn’t a good time to remove the girls, but the parents had insisted. One family, in their haste, had almost driven through the gated door before the guard had opened it. It seemed clear to her now that some parents had already known the attack was coming, and had chosen not to warn them.
Now, the rebels held the fire from their torches up against the window bars of one of the two school dormitories and peered inside. The rebels, boys mostly aged eleven to seventeen, commanded by a twenty-one-year-old leader, were hunting for virgin girls. They knew that they lived in one of these buildings. Shrouded by the darkness of their room, the 152 girls inside – aged eleven to sixteen – quietly moved off their bunk beds and climbed under their bed frames to hide. Just then, a rebel’s torchlight caught the gleaming eye of a girl. “They’re in here!” he shouted.
Some of the rebels rammed on the locked door, others tried to break the barred windows. After a few moments, still unable to gain entry, one yelled out: either open up or he’d throw in a grenade. Despite the threat, no one opened the door. The girls hid silently under their beds, the occasional soft trickle of water breaking the silence when one urinated on the floor in fear.
For an hour the rebels pounded with their rifle butts against the concrete wall. Finally the concrete collapsed along a window frame. A small rebel boy entered through the hole and unbolted the door and the rest rushed in. (587 words)
So … are you hooked? Incredible isn’t it – how some authors can reach out, grab us by the throat and pull us into their stories. By the way, the whole book is equally compelling. It’s terrifying, emotional and heartbreaking (keep a box of tissues nearby). Yet at the same time it’s inspiring. It’s a story of courage, faith, strength and the will to survive.
The next time you pick up a book, pay particular attention to the first couple of pages. The author should have your undivided attention by the end of page two. It isn’t impossible to hook an audience in 500 words … but it sure is challenging! That’s why authors spend ridiculous amounts of time polishing chapter one.