Beginning Right: The Fast Open and Protagonist Bonding by Dean Gloster


            This month, we’re talking about beginnings, and I’m going to dive into how to open your novel, which is key: There's a well understood way to tell if readers in a bookstore will buy a book. They pull it off the shelf, glance at the cover and the back flap copy, maybe glance at the blurbs in the beginning, and then begin to read. If the first paragraph hooks them, they read the whole page. If the first page hooks them, they read the second. If they're still reading in five pages, they buy the book.

            Experience with online buyers is similar. So it’s helpful, as writers, to master the fast opening, as a technique to hook readers in those first five pages, and to understand how readers bond with our protagonists so we give them that opportunity. Early. Because if, in the opening pages, we don’t hook readers and make them bond with our protagonists, in this world of short attention spans and other entertainment options, the reader won’t still be around.

What Does the Opening Do?

            Ideally, a story’s opening does four things: It communicates the promise of the story. It demonstrates credible prose—that the author can write. It (usually) introduces the protagonist, preferably in action, showing some of their key characteristics. Finally, and most importantly, it hooks readers and pulls them in, making them want to read more.

            The Promise of the Story: Not necessarily the premise, but rather the pledge about, if they go on this journey, the kind of experience readers will have: Is this science fiction so hard that you can bounce a moon rock off it? A tongue-in-cheek sendup of a classic first person hardboiled private eye novel, but set in a contemporary high school? Is it a paranormal story with world-saving stakes in an intriguing, spooky world? Give us an accurate hint of what is to come.

            One nice thing about YA readers is that they're often more open to genre-hopping than other readers, but all readers want to know something about the journey they're about to take. Before seeing exactly how the protagonist gets in hot water, they want to know if this is their cup of tea.

            Credible Prose. You don’t have to have amazing writing (although it’s great if you do) but you must have competent writing. Readers want to feel that they're in good hands: If there are mistakes, sloppiness, unnecessarily confusing things, lazy point of view violations, clunky dialogue tags and the like, readers put the book down—even if they can’t point to exactly why. By contrast, if they find effective, efficient prose with even a hint of dazzle, readers are comforted: If the writer can get the small things right, readers relax into the experience, trusting that the writer will also deliver a satisfying journey that will make them think and feel.

            The Protagonist in Action, Revealing Character. More about this below, when I talk about how to get readers to identify and bond with our protagonists.

            Hooking Readers. The most important thing the opening line, paragraph, page, scene, and chapter do is to hook readers and make them want to read on.

Hooking Readers

How do we hook readers? Oh, let me count the ways:

1.     An intriguing opening line or lines. As Stephen King says, an opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

2.     Tension and conflict. There can be conflict on page one, and it helps. Wait, you say, my inciting incident hasn’t even happened yet. How can I have conflict? That, dear reader, is why we have bridging tension in the opening scene and chapter: Conflict and tension over something else, before the main plot rears its head.

3.     Mysteries (which are very different from just confusing writing.) Mysteries intrigue us and make us want to read on, to find the answer. They make us ask questions, by withholding information and hinting at things that most often raise the questions why and how. But well-deployed mysteries are puzzles—quite different from just being confusing or muddled so that the annoyed reader doesn’t really know what’s going on.

4.     Stakes. If we understand there are important stakes from the beginning (life or death; acceptance and fitting in; the connection—or loss of connection—between people who love each other) we readers will be interested in the outcome.

5.     Humor, voice, an amazing setting, and other plus factors. Humor, voice, an interesting setting, a fascinating minor character, etc. can all add something and pull readers in. Don’t save it for later. Your first five pages are what persuades readers to decide to try to read the rest. So if you’ve got it, show it off.

            Of course, there is more to hooking readers than a short list of ingredients. The most powerful way to hook readers is to get them to identify with and bond with our protagonist.

Getting Readers to Bond with Our Main Character

            Brain science tells us that when we read immersive fiction, the same parts of our brains light up that would be engaged when we are directly experiencing the actions and emotions of the character we're reading about. That is, we so thoroughly identify and bond with those protagonists and their goals and struggles against adversity, that we are actually experiencing the book as life itself. We are immersed in the fictive dream.

Lisa Cron talks about this in her book Wired for Story

            If you don’t get readers to identify and bond with your protagonist, people won’t read your book. It won’t even be published. Instead, you’ll get that famously lukewarm feedback from agents or editors: “The writing was excellent, but I just couldn’t connect with the main character.” Ugh.

            So how do you get readers to connect? Oh, good—I get to count the ways again:

1.     Give the main character positive characteristics. We want to read about protagonists who are brave, interesting, fun, likeable, winsome, resilient, talented, persuasive, clever, observant, and a whole host of other positive characteristics. It’s especially helpful to give your main character a sense of humor: That not only makes them buoyant in the face of adversity—research shows that 98% of readers rate their own sense of humor as average or above average, so readers identify with those who are funny. Other research shows that if we think someone has a great sense of humor, we also assume they are more creative, intelligent, cooperative, pleasant, and considerate than average. Humor is a great, compressed way to secretly assign our characters other positive traits.

2.     Give the main character a flaw. We readers are not perfect, and we want to read about people who are like us. Perfect is boring and unrealistic and hard for most of us to identify with. So give your protagonist a flaw. Some flaws, however, wear poorly: Don’t make them whiny or self-pitying. (Unless they’re a right-wing media personality. Then that would just be authenticity.)

3.     Give the main character a goal. It’s crucial for our characters to want something, and it’s helpful to communicate that goal clearly to readers, so readers know what to root for. A goal is something specific and tangible the protagonist wants to have happen, for good reasons that readers understand (stakes and backstory). Even at the very beginning, before the protagonist develops a plot-related goal, the main character can have a scene goal. Which then, as we’ll see, gets frustrated by conflict and adversity.

4.     Put the main character through adversity. Someone once defined the basics of story as “put your character in a tree and then throw rocks at them.” Readers bond with, and root for, protagonists who are faced with adversity. But not all adversity is created equal. If the character has an important goal for an important reason (stakes) adversity that blocks or delays that goal powerfully engages readers. They read on to find out whether and how the character can get around the new obstacle.

5.     Have others vouch for the main character. At the beginning, readers are deciding whether they want to spend an entire story length of time with your main characters and their struggles. It helps readers decide yes if the others in the book obviously love and care for the protagonist. If those who know the main character well obviously cherish them, we’re more likely to be willing to spend time getting to know them too.

6.     Give the main character an early save the cat/pet the dog beat. One of the most powerful ways to get readers to bond with and admire the protagonist is for the protagonist to undertake some early self-sacrifice or effort on behalf of someone less fortunate—weaker, smaller, more vulnerable, or lower status. This is commonly called a “save the cat” or “pet the dog” beat.


            You want a great opening line? Here’s the start of award-winning YA writer Jeff Zentner’s novel Goodbye Days:

            “Depending on who—sorry, whom—you ask, I killed my three best friends.”

            Ouch. We know the protagonist wants to get things right and not make mistakes. And that, nevertheless, he may have killed his three best friends. And already we have questions—how? Did he? What happened? Mysteries that we read on to get the answer to. And the stakes are powerful: literally life-and-death, involving guilt and regret.

            You want an example of a book where the author works brilliantly (and overtime) to get us to bond with her protagonist? Look no further than Suzanne Collins’ blockbuster dystopian YA novel The Hunger Games. She has a more complicated task than usual, because—along with everything else—in the opening she has to plausibly establish that her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, will be capable of killing a bunch of other children in the course of the hunger games, yet still have us like and bond with Katniss. The novel seems to break all the rules, beginning with Katniss waking up and thinking about how she nearly drowned the cat. (What?!) But Katniss loves her younger sister, Prim, and would do anything for her. And she’s competent, the sole provider for her family as an illegal hunter of wild game. And others obviously care for her. And there is the steady drumbeat of tension because it’s the day of the reaping, the drawing for which children will have to participate in the Hunger Games. Then the moment comes, early, when Katniss volunteers for almost certain death, to spare her sister Prim. (“I volunteer as tribute!” one heck of a pet the dog/save the cat beat.) And then almost the entirety of her District salutes her, as do we readers:

At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.

We readers are with Katniss, all the way.

A few final cautions:

            First, this is advice tailored to genre and commercial fiction, not literary fiction. But even if you write exclusively to the rarified market of literary fiction, you should be aware of these techniques, so you can use them as part of your palette of creating colorful stories that more than eight people want to read.

            Second, this advice also is really for late or final drafts, not your first one. You don't have to have a brilliant opening line to begin. Just begin.

            In your first draft, there's another way to think about what to put in the opening pages: Not what would work best to hook readers but rather what would give me, the writer, the most to work with later in this draft. Ron Carlson, in his craft book Ron Carlson Writes a Story, suggests that approach.

             An element of that seems right to me. So often, we include small details about a character or their habits or hobbies which turns out to be really important in the book much later, in scenes of chapters we hadn't even thought about yet. So don't be afraid to stick things in that occur to you because they feel right. You can always take them out later if they don't quite fit.


            For everyone who read this far, you deserve a present: So here are some helpful resources for writing the opening of your story:

Donald Maass’s book, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook has great exercises for making your protagonist more attractive and interesting and for creating tension, including bridging tension at the start.

Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles and Ends: Elements of Fiction talks more about establishing the initial promise and having credible prose. (But ignore her advice to avoid flashbacks during the first 100 pages, except as an exercise.)

Jeff Gerke’s The First 50 Pages is a nice primer on how to start well.

Darcy Pattison’s Start Your Novel has some good advice, and in chapter six it has Susan Luminello’s 12 categories of opening lines, drawn from the list of 100 best novel opening lines as chosen by the editors of The American Book Review.

James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self Editing for Publication is a nice resource on revision, and its chapter 17 has a nice brief discussion of adding a “pet the dog” beat.

            Anyway, however you go about it, may you have an excellent beginning and a wonderful journey.

Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His YA short story “Death’s Adopted Daughter” is in the anthology Spoon Knife 6: Rest Stop from Autonomous Press, and his YA short story, “Proof of the Existence of Dog” is now out in the anthology Spoon Knife 7: Transitions. He is at work on two more YA novels, one in draft and the other in revision, and today is his (one of those speed limit numbers) birthday.


  1. Thank you Dean. There's a ton of great stuff in this post. (and my name is not anonymous)


Post a Comment