Heroes Shouldn’t Look In The Mirror Unless They’re An Evil Queen

Heroes Shouldn’t Look In The Mirror Unless They’re An Evil Queen
How To Hook Your Readers In The First Page Of Your Book

By Julie Butcher-Fedynich

ways to start a story

Over the course of many years, I’ve read thousands of manuscripts. There’s a curious symmetry writers have in their first few books. Either they wake up, they dream, they look in a freaking mirror and describe their luxurious, wavy hair, or they tell us everything that happened in their life up to this point.

For some reason, newer writers think that we, the reader, must know what the main character looks like in the first few paragraphs. Immediately, they give us a driver’s license version; height, weight, hair and eye color. I don’t know about you guys, but I seriously don’t like someone in love with their own hair. Writers, this isn’t bad information to have. You need to know if your character has white hair that shines in the moonlight and will give away his position to the enemy. We don’t, at least not until the bullet parts his curly locks.

What we need to know in the first few paragraphs are the same things that your teachers insisted you have in science papers and book reports, the four W’s: Who-Where-When-Why. The entire book is the How but it doesn’t hurt to give a hint of that at the beginning either.

When you’re writing in first person the Who is obvious, since it is first person, the main character has the only perspective. If you’re writing in third person, you have to give it an extra kick for us to know Who.

Where is a kind of important thing, guys. There’s a big difference between New York City and The Shire. I know writers who agonize over their first sentence like their entire chance of publication hangs on half-a-dozen words. Umm…no. It doesn’t. You have to make sure your reader knows where they are, and when they are. When you go to the bookstore or the library, and are browsing the shelves, you read the cover copy, and then flip to the first page, and read a few paragraphs, right? Then and only then do you decide to read the entire book.

So the first few pages are what are important—especially to a debut author.

I grabbed a few books off of my own shelf to pull out examples. We’re checking for the four W’s at the beginning of each book. We’ll keep the examples to under 300 words, so about a page.

Storm Front (The Dresden Files, Book 1) by Jim Butcher

Chapter One

I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn’t sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed.

Then he knocked.

I winced. My mail comes through the mail slot unless it’s registered. I get a really limited selection of registered mail, and it’s never good news. I got up out of my office chair and opened the door.

The new mailman looked like a basketball with arms and legs and a sunburned, balding head, and he stood chuckling and reading the sign on the door glass. He glanced at me and hooked a thumb towards the office glass. “You’re kidding, right?”

I read the sign (people change it occasionally), and shook my head. “No, I’m serious. Can I have my mail, please.”

“So, uh. Like parties, shows, stuff like that?” He looked past me, as though he expected to see a white tiger, or possibly some skimpily clad assistants prancing around my one-room office.

I sighed, not in the mood to get mocked again, and reached for the mail he held in his hand. “No, not like that. I don’t do parties.”

He held on to it, his head tilted curiously. “So what? Some kinda fortuneteller? Cards and crystal balls and things?”

“No,” I told him. “I’m not a psychic.” I tugged at the mail.

He held onto it. “What are you, then?”

“What’s the sign on the door say?”

“It says ‘Harry Dresden. Wizard.’”

Okey-dokey. We know Who: Harry Dresden, Wizard. We have an idea of Where: In his office. We know When: Daytime (because the postman comes during the day, right?) We know Why: because he’s at work, he is a professional wizard, it’s his job. And we even have a hint of How. He does the job but no one believes in him. He’s mocked by a perfect stranger. We have the four W’s.

Let’s move on to a different author.
Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood, Book 1) by Charlaine Harris.

Chapter One

I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.

Ever since vampires came out of the coffin (as they laughingly put it) four years ago, I’d hoped one would come to Bon Temps. We had all the other minorities in our little town-why not the newest, the legally recognized undead? But rural northern Louisiana wasn’t too tempting to vampires, apparently; on the other hand, New Orleans was a real center for them-the whole Anne Rice thing, right?

It’s not that long a drive from Bon Temps to New Orleans, and everyone who came into the bar said that if you threw a rock on a street corner you’d hit one. Though you better not.

But I was waiting for my own vampire.

You can tell I don’t get out much. And it’s not because I’m not pretty. I am. I’m blond and blue-eyed and twenty-five, and my legs are strong and my bosom is substantial, and I have a waspy waistline. I look good in the warm-weather waitress outfit Sam picked for us: black shorts, white T, white socks, black Nikes.

But I have a disability. That’s how I try to think of it.

The bar patrons just say I’m crazy.

Who is obvious because, once again, we’re in first person. We also know that she is a waitress in a bar. What she wants is to meet a vampire. Where is established, Bon Temps, Louisiana, in a bar, at night, four years after vampires came out of the coffin. Why she wants this is because she doesn’t get out much and everyone thinks she’s crazy. There’s even a hint at How (danger) when she points out that you shouldn’t throw a rock at a vampire.

Both authors covered the four W’s with less than 300 words. Both grabbed our attention from the get-go. Both are New York Times and USA Today best sellers. Both have television series based on their books. They didn’t start in the middle of a fight, or by waking up. They didn’t dream or look in the mirror.

Now writers go back over your manuscript and check for Who-Where-When-Why-How. Then break the mirrors for good luck.

By Julie Butcher-Fedynich


Get FREE Buzzy Mag Email Updates!
Julie Butcher Fedynich
Buzzy Mag Columnist & Pundit. Julie Butcher lives with her husband and six children on the fringes of Utter Chaos. She is the sister of #1 USA Today and NYT bestselling author, Jim Butcher. She adores puppies, kittens, and thinks world peace would be awesome as long as stuff still blows up in the movies.
  • Nikki Barnabee/@GargoylePhan

    Love the post, Julie. Great advice! Naturally, it made me re-read the beginning of my new WIP (ok, I re-read it almost daily ‘cos I’m so happy with it. But still.), and all seems fine. Weird, but fine. ;-}

  • Maureen DeMarco

    Another must read article for writers of fiction. There have been so many books that never get a chance because they just don’t grab the reader in the first few lines.

  • Luna G

    Who , what , where and why is what I was told was essential to every story when I was knee high to a grasshopper. What I was also told but in not these exact words is that writers often fall in love with their own literary voice and forget that the average reader (not my mom) gives the average writer about 2 minutes max before they decide to give the writer a chance. Talk about pressure. Next time I begin to write a story I will reread Julie Butcher-Fedynich’s advice first.