Starting a novel in a way that captures your readers’ attention and engages their curiosity and persuades them to give your story a fighting chance is about far more than writing a catchy first line or a dramatic first page. You have to convince the reader that your made-up world is real, that the people in it are experiencing real struggle, and that you, the author, have complete and total authority over what is happening in it. We all know what that feels like on the reader’s side – to be swept away by a story so strongly that someone in the next room could be yelling, “Fire!” and we might not even lift our head from the pages. But how does it happen from the writer’s side? How do they spin their magic web?
I recently picked up Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan and immediately felt that rush of being taken in by a story. I found six things in the first six pages that contributed to this feeling:
1. A sense of wonder
The opening lines of the story are about a man on a ladder in a bookstore searching for a book. We sense the strangeness of the bookstore – It’s dark up there… the air might be thinner… I think I see a bat. And before we even get finished with Page 1, we want to know what this place is, and what book he is searching for, and who he is, and what exactly is going on. That’s not about drama. It’s about curiosity, about caring, about wanting to know something.
2. A sense of time passing, of things changing.
The character introduces himself like this: My name is Clay Jannon and those were the days when I rarely touched paper.
This one line makes you want to know so many things. Why didn’t he touch paper? And what happened to turn him into someone who often touched paper. We get a feeling that in this story, something important will change in this guy’s life. And that’s what we want in a novel – an experience of transformation. That’s what we come for.
3. + 4. + 5. A character with a clear and present problem + a compelling voice + a sense of the writer’s authority
Clay reads all day on a computer. He says he is reading the third book in a series about vampire police. I have a lot of free time, he says, by way of explaining this somewhat odd reading choice. And then he tells us why he is spending his days in this way – and here is where the authority of the writer over the story kicks in hard. Not only does the following passage show us where we are in the grand scheme of time – the early twenty-first century – but we are shown this character’s place in it, and we see that it’s not a good place. Clay is a talented guy reduced to working for a dubious bagel company and then left with no job at all.
This guy is talking about a big problem and yet he speaks in a very wry and knowing and almost contented voice about it, which makes us believe that he no longer has that big problem, which makes us want to read forward to see how he got out from under it. This is, in other words, a story about a character with a challenge, who is speaking in a unique and compelling voice, and which is written by an author who knows exactly where is story is going – the trifecta every great story needs to hit:
I was unemployed, a result of the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century, leaving bankrupt burger chains and shuttered sushi empires in its wake.
The job I lost was at the corporate headquarters of NewBagel, which was based not in New York or anywhere else with a tradition of bagel-making but instead here in San Francisco. The company was very small and very new. It was founded by a pair of ex-Googlers who wrote software to design and bake the platonic bagel: smooth crunchy skin, soft doughy interior, all in a perfect circle. It was my first job out of art school, and I started as a designer, making marketing materials to explain and promote this tasty toroid: menus, coupons, diagrams, posters for store windows, and, once, an entire booth experience for a baked-goods trade show.
None of this represented the glorious next stage of human evolution, but I was learning things. I was moving up. But then the economy took a dip, and it turns out that in a recession, people want good old-fashioned bubbly oblong bagels, not smooth alien-spaceship bagels, not even if they're sprinkled with precision-milled rock salt.
The ex-Googlers were accustomed to success and they would not go quietly. They quickly rebranded to become the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company and abandoned the algorithm entirely so the bagels started coming out blackened and irregular. They instructed me to make the website look old-timey, a task that burdened my soul and earned me zero AIGA awards. The marketing budget dwindled, then disappeared. There was less and less to do. I wasn't learning anything and I wasn't moving anywhere.
So then, after less than a year of employment, I was jobless.
6. We see that the singular guy’s problem isn’t just his problem. He represents a problem in this whole world, and by making that shift, the story becomes universal.
You can feel that shift happen in the following passage. It's subtle -- just a short mention about the whole economy, the risk of not landing a job, followed by a zooming out to hear about the competition and what the winners in the economy are experiencing. We get the clear sense that Clay's story will teach us something about this world and who wins and who loses and why. We get a glimpse of the stakes:
It turned out it was more than just the food chains that had contracted. People were living in motels and tent cities. The whole economy suddenly felt like a game of musical chairs, and I was convinced I needed to grab a seat, any seat, as fast as I could.
That was a depressing scenario when I considered the competition. I had friends who were designers like me, but they had already designed world-famous websites or advanced touch-screen interfaces, not just the logo for an upstart bagel shop. I had friends who worked at Apple. My best friend, Neel, ran his own company. Another year at NewBagel and I would have been in good shape, but I hadn't lasted long enough to build my portfolio, or even get particularly good at anything. I had an art-school thesis on Swiss typography (1957–1983) and I had a three-page website.
I’m not going to give anything away, but suffice it to say that just six pages into the story, we actually know everything this story is about. All the clues are there. This jobless guy whose friends all seem to have caught lucky breaks is barely making it in the new economy. His super esoteric and analog art school thesis seems to be totally worthless in a world where people are looking for big digital wins. We ask ourselves, “What on earth will happen to him and what is up with the weird and magical-seeming bookstore?” – which is exactly the kinds of questions that keeps readers reading.
Do your opening six pages do all that?? These are well worth studying to see how Sloan pulls it off -- and I dare you to NOT keep reading the novel. It's so much fun and a great read for book lovers because it's so much about the place of books in the world. I loved it.
Interested in learning how you can determine if your work has the narrative drive it needs? Check out the Revision Sprint, which is upcoming on December 9th and 10th. To learn more, click HERE