If we do it right, from the very beginning, it should be seduction. Luring the reader in, making them forget about the fact that we’re telling them lies. All lies. Lies that hold a truth somewhere, the promise of something rich and memorable. A rush, the suggestion of satisfaction, of bliss. Being sated, while making them forget it’s all based on deception.
Making the experience personal, unique, something the reader believes they won’t find anywhere else. Something meant just for them. Theirs.
The opening to a novel is all about seducing, capturing the reader with just the right tone, the right shift of the body, so that they lean in a little. Tell me more.
The beginning of a story used to be difficult for me, until I realized what it was all about. It’s not about the set up, or the backstory. It’s not about the world or the place or the weather. It’s about titillation. Potential. It does not have to be about understanding, yet. The whole "they have to know this thing happened back then in order to know what that event means" scenario. You don’t start off a seduction of a partner by delving into what your parents did when you were seven or the unforgivable thing you’re ashamed of or exactly who your great-uncle was and why he left you the moose in his will. None of these things matter yet to the audience, and you can’t make them matter in the first two minutes.
You can, though, make them interested enough to stick around to find out more. Understanding will come later.
There are a few components to a good seduction.
Confidence. One hell of a weapon. If someone is nervous and jumpy and suffering flop sweat, it doesn’t exactly inspire a person to think anything following is going to be exciting. Or anything above insufferable. Likewise, starting off explaining too much can come across as wimpy, lacking in confidence. Pick a path, pick a voice, hone it. Own it. Have confidence in it.
Awareness. Pay attention to your partner’s signals. In writing, this translates as know your audience. Know their expectations, and then show them that you have the potential to deliver–in unexpected ways. Sure, you can break rules of the genre, but it’s the difference between being aware that pitching a three-way from the podium of the Southern Baptist convention is not going to get the same results as pitching the same thing in a bar after work.
Invitation. Your partner has to feel wanted. Needed. There needs to be an invitation to continue. Body language, intonation, phrasing, eye contact, laughter… in seduction, all of these things can come into play. You can’t seduce someone if you’re too busy paying attention to everyone else in the room–there would be the blunt sense of not mattering, not being needed, not being unique, and the lack of invitation would turn most people off. So, too, if you don’t raise a question or two in the beginning of the story. The sense that you need to tell this story, to them, that it’s critical, that they, the reader, are important, is primary. Put another way, this is the "don’t bore them with exposition" rule. Think back to standing at a party and having someone go on and on and on about themselves. They start sounding self-important, and you wonder why you even need to be there. They’d probably be saying the same thing without you, and immediately, you wish to be elsewhere. The reader senses this same thing, when there’s tons of exposition. Instead, plunge them into the story, into the conflict, and tantalize them with and interesting angle on what happened, or an interesting voice. Tease them.
Focus. Know what you’re promising, because you’re going to have to follow through. And as you go, you’ll be showing you know this, demonstrating some expertise that will continue the seduction, keep their interest until they’re too far gone to walk away. This means finishing what you started, the way you started it. If you start off with serial killers, ending with the Marx Brothers is probably a bad idea. Consistency. No one in the middle of great sex suddenly wants to start talking about the aliens you think landed and took over your in-laws.
Subtext. Build the tension. The surest way to crash the evening (or push away the reader) is to interrupt the flirting with a sudden need to have a heart-to-heart honest discussion of some issue that is very important to you–when that wasn’t the direction the evening was going. There are things that are said, and things not said, and seduction often takes place in that subtext, in the things not said.
I’ll admit here that I want to be seduced by good openings. I want to feel that rush of expectation, the heightened sense of promise. I have a good many books on my TBR pile because of the seduction of such openings… things like Sean Chercover’s Trigger City, Lori Armstrong’s Snow Blind, Harlan Coben’s Hold Tight, Robert Crais’ The Watchman, [I know, I am the last person on earth to read this one], Tasha Alexander’s A Fatal Waltz, and Zoë Sharp’s Third Strike [an absolutely terrific opening line]… okay, I just looked at my stack and there are more than fifty books in this one stack. In one room. There are stacks in each room.
How about you? What seduces you? And tell me something on your TBR pile (and I’ll follow up and put links to those titles).
Edited to add links from the selections in the comments… (because links are wonky if I try to put them there):
The Confessions of Max Tivoli — Andrew Sean Greer
EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE — John McFetridge
The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski
oops, I missed a couple from earlier… and there are a few more!
SILENCE OF THE GRAVE — Arnaldur Indridason
WRONG KIND OF BLOOD — Declan Hughes
ISABELLA MOON — by Laura Benedict
THE HARD WAY — Lee Child
TROUBLE IN PARADISE — Robert B Parker
JUDGMENT IN DEATH — JD Robb
Voodoo Doll — Leah Giarratano
Shatter — Michael Robotham