Summarize your novel in its 1st paragraph

by Ksenia Anske in


Kurt Vonnegut said, "To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages." If you're not sure what Kurt means, if you think he contradicts the mere notion of keeping the readers hanging, making them turn pages and bite their nails, I'm there with you. I didn't get it at first. Reading a lot of brilliant novels helped me understand. Take his advice to heart. I will go even one step further - not only do you need to explain everything to the reader, but you need to summarize YOUR ENTIRE NOVEL in its first paragraph. You might call me crazy. But, honestly, I'm not. Here is why: 

The opening sentence of your book is everything. Either hook the reader, or lose the reader forever. There are multiple examples on brilliant opening sentences. My favorite right now is "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." BAM. You know WHO this is about, WHAT is happening, and WHERE. It also gives you a sense of an epic adventure. That's enough to get you scratch your head and wonder, WHY and WHEN and HOW? That's why you keep reading. (BTW, I said, right now, because it depends on what I'm reading at the moment - currently hooked on The Dark Tower series). You will argue that it all "depends." I would agree, except that if by the end of the first paragraph you haven't told me what I'm reading, I'm gone.

We read because we know WHAT will happen, but we don't know HOW. OK, the world has been around forever, and all stories repeat themselves, there is nothing new. We know that the good guys will win, the bad guys will die, the lovers will fall in and out of love, etc, etc. What's interesting to us is, HOW do they do it? Here is my favorite example, the 1st paragraph from Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon:

"THE WORLD had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered this when she was nine years old. At ten o'clock on a morning in early June she was sitting in the back seat of her mother's Dodge Caravan, wearing her blue Red Sox batting practice jersey (the one with 36 GORDON on the back) and playing with Mona, her doll. At ten thirty she was lost in the woods. By eleven she was trying not to be terrified, trying not to let herself think, This is serious, this is very serious. Trying not to think that sometimes when people got lost in the woods they got seriously hurt. Sometimes they died."

See - we know who the Main Character is, we know her name, gender, age, how she was dressed, where she was going, and what happened to her. Presto, the whole book is right there. Then why, tell me, why do we want to keep reading? Because we want to know HOW it happens, and HOW it ends. Of course, we suspect that since she is just a 9 year old girl, she will live, but we're not sure. And that's what keeps us turning the pages.

Root me in your story as a reader from the get-go. 5 key story elements will do it. We all know them - character, setting, conflict, theme and treatment. Why do we need them? Because we want to be THERE with you, the author. We want to take ourselves, escape our daily grind, and transplant our minds into the la-la-land that you have created (sadly, our bodies must stay where they are). Imagine jumping into a movie. You want to get as close to reality as possible, and for that as readers we need to visualize ourselves right there, in yours, author's, mind. And you need to do it in the 1st paragraph. Then you got us. AFTER you can take your time to spell out the details - we're hooked, we're yours. But if you wait, you might make us put your novel back down. (This depends on a reader's patience. When I browse bookstores, I usually put the book down if it didn't grab me by the 2nd page.)

Facts rule. As much as we like to think of stories as some ethereal super-magical gentle things that invade our minds by way of hazy dawning (it dawned on me, oh, I understood its very essence!), we are simple realistic beings that think in very concerete terms. Vampires have two sharp teeth and drink blood, ghosts come out exactly after midnight, werewolves turn at full moon - you get the drift. So, give out facts - names, numbers, places, time - everything should be there. If not, we get lost quickly and then we lose interest alltogether. 

Try it. There is no harm! If you're still wondering whether or not this works, do a little exercise. Set aside 10-20 minutes and write a quick paragraph that summarizes your novel - the first sentence being what the story is about, then a little bit of explanation of everything, and the last sentence the hook - that suspenseful what-might-happen ending. Show it around and see what people say. Then tell me I was wrong!

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