I have heard that editors will not read beyond the first page of a manuscript—sometimes less—unless it captures their attention. If a writer wants to get a book, or a story, published it’s best to start with a bang, to capture the reader’s interest from the first paragraph.
For someone like me with a logical mind, this is counterintuitive. What comes naturally to me is to build the story from the foundation and pile brick upon brick. This may have something to do with my background in law. That approach might have worked for writers up to the 1950s but no longer.
Today’s readers are busier and have shorter attention spans than in the past. In order to keep them reading, a story has to grab and hold their interest. This means that the writer must choose the right place to commence. An account that begins when things are quiet and nothing much is happening will not accomplish this. Nor will one that starts with an in-depth description of the scene and/or of the characters. Many readers will put the book down and find something else to do.
The best approach I know to capture the reader’s interest from the start is to drop them into the middle of the action. Even if it’s not where the story actually begins, start where something exciting is happening. You can fill in the buildup later. The technical name for this approach is in medias res, which means in the middle of the action.
The idea is to begin with an important event, without introduction.
• A gunshot zings past the main character’s head.
• A woman hurriedly pushes a grocery cart across the aisle on her first day back in her hometown and crashes into the man who left her at the altar.
• A detective watches while the medical examiner turns over the body of a homicide victim, and it has his face.
• A woman opens the door to find the police on her doorstep…with a warrant for her arrest.
Only after the initial inciting event does the reader learn the background. For example, the woman placed under arrest might learn as much as she can from the questions the detectives ask her, then hire a lawyer who works with her to determine what led to her arrest and to establish her innocence of the charges. Those events would constitute the rest of the story. The two might even fall in love in the process.
I am convinced that writers who master this approach to capture the reader’s interest will greatly increase their chance to have their work published.