Nine ways to direct your reader from the very beginning
Beginnings need to not only hook the reader, but also give your reader some direction, so your reader is not in a vacuum.
Here is a list of nine aspects you should address early on:
Establish your narrator
Who is telling the story? It may not always be the protagonist of the story/novel.
In an essay it may be you who tells the story, but if your essay is based on an interview, for example, you may instead choose to have your subject tell the story and keep yourself out of it in part or entirely.
In a memoir, most commonly it will be you who tells the story, but if you tell your mother’s story, for example, the narrator may be her.
Establish your protagonist
Who is the main character in your story/novel/essay or memoir? What makes her tick?
Even though it’s a good idea to reveal your protagonist gradually, especially in a novel, your reader needs to be able to form an early idea of what sort of person your main character is.
Establish point of view
Are you writing in 1st, 2nd or 3rd person?
What I mean here is not your voice as an author, but the voice, style and tone of your story/novel/essay/memoir, which reveals itself in your narrator and/or main characters.
What is their gender? What is their style and language or how do they sound: formal, casual, objective/dry or poetic/lyrical?
Where is your story/novel/essay/memoir set?
In Australia or another country?
In the countryside or in a city? What does it look like?
In a house or in a room? What does it look like? Sparse or cluttered? Wealthy or poor? Clean or disheveled?
What is the time in which your writing piece is set? Is it contemporary or historical (which year/period)? Is it summer or winter? Is it morning or night?
Establish a strong need or desire for your protagonist
What does your protagonist want? What is missing from her life? A partner? A job? Friends? A child?
Establish a compelling situation: Inciting Incident
What event disrupts your protagonist’s ordinary life? What event leads to realisation about what she is missing in her life? What event means she has to take some action? What choices will she make about how to react to the disrupting event?
Establish central concern/theme of your piece, or, to put it differently, ask an intriguing dramatic question
Will your protagonist fulfil her desire? Achieve her goals?
And here are some great beginnings in Australian books. Ask yourself how the authors hook and direct the reader:
Kristina Olsson, Boy, Lost:
“Cairns railway station, far north Queensland, summer, 1950. A girl with fugitive eyes and an infant on her hip. She is thin, gaunt even, but still it is easy to see these two are a pair, dark-haired and dark-eyed. She hurries down the platform towards the second-class cars, slowed by the weight of her son and her cardboard suitcase. It holds everything they own, everything she dared to take.”
Jayne Newling, Missing Christopher:
“Overlooking the edge of the cliff from where my seventeen-year-old son died, I watched as a blond-haired toddler ran towards his mother and screamed. He had fallen and grazed his knees ten metres below, on the same rock Christopher’s body thumped and splintered.”
Alex Miller, Autumn Laing:
“They are all dead, and I am old and skeleton-gaunt. This is where it began fifty-three years ago. Here, where I’m standing in the shadows of the old coach house, the boards sprung and gaping, this stifling January afternoon. I was thirty-two.”
Jessie Cole, Deeper Water:
“They say every hero has to leave home, but what those first steps are like I’m yet to know. Where I live you’d think there was no world to discover, all hemmed in by such endless green. Cow paddocks gone bushy, forest tracks taking back the rolling hills. You’ve got to cross six creeks just to get to my house, and if the sky lets loose and the water rises, there’s nothing to do but sit and wait. Some days, time seems to stand still. The weather might be wild, but the minutes tick by as though they’re weighed down by an invisible load. And then some days the whole world changes, and when that movement finally comes, it’s fast, like a raging river, nearly knocking your legs out from beneath you.”
Paul Daley, Challenge:
“Chisel deserved to die. Nothing less, for all he’d done.
When I reach back thirty-five years to conjure a winter’s night in 1974, my mouth dries up and my heart instantly palpitates, so vivid is my recall of what it’s like to hope, to wish, that someone – me, if I could summon the strength – would actually kill him.
I got my chance. And at the end of that night I lived on, satisfied that one way or another Chisel finally got what he’d long had coming.”
Jon Bauer, Rocks in the Belly:
“I used to tell people I was a foster child. As a boy I’d tell every new stranger until it started burrowing into me as a sort of truth. A truth that’s still here, keeping me from belonging.
I used to tell people I was a foster child even though I was the only one in our home who wasn’t fostered. And now I’m supposedly a man, everything about me is still fostered – my country, the history I tell people.”