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First Impressions and Introductions

March 6, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 6, 2011

We all know that the adage is true, that you get only one chance to make a good first impression.

That’s true for our stories as well.

Sort of.

It’s true that a reader may decide to pick up our books because of the cover or because of a recommendation, and the way they feel about the book at that time is the first impression. But it’s the words that will keep the reader involved with our stories.

Readers often check out first lines, first pages, even first chapters before they decide to buy a book. So that first line, first page, and first chapter need to accomplish a whole lot in a very little amount of time.

Yet, readers delving into our stories get more than one chance to meet the story, to form attachments and a liking for our book. They may get an overall impression from a quick read of the first pages, but their impressions won’t stop there. And neither will the introductions.

What firsts—what impressions and introductions—can a reader find in story?

If a writer paid attention to these other firsts, what could he or she do with them to keep the reader interested, to create and then maintain that good first impression?

How many chances does the writer have to make good, to reach the reader, to gain the reader’s positive feelings toward the story?

What should writers concern themselves with—what do they need to be aware of—in terms of first impressions and introductions?

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The reader may first see the front cover, read the back cover blurb, form an opinion about the title. But these elements of a book are often beyond the writer’s control.

What firsts can the writer control? What items can she perfect so that readers form positive and strong impressions of the story?

Any anticipated element presented well can draw the reader to the writer’s corner. Any anticipated element presented poorly can give the reader a bad taste about the story and/or the author.

Writers, then, need to make sure that they anticipate the elements their readers will anticipate and write to satisfy those anticipations.

Readers are drawn to enticing openings—make your opening enticing.

Readers look forward to the introduction of the protagonist—introduce him or her in a memorable way.

Wherever reader anticipation is likely to be high, at each introduction, be sure to give the reader something memorable.

Actions fitting the character.

A word or words that define the character’s motivation.

An arresting meet between hero and heroine.

For each introduction in your story, write something the reader will welcome and remember, something that fits the story, something fitting to an introduction.

Just what am I talking about? How can there be more than one first impression? What introductions are there other than the reader’s first exposure to the story?

Well . . .

There are the basics. Consider the first

  • word
  • sentence
  • paragraph
  • page
  • scene
  • chapter

Make sure you pay attention to these moments in your story. Work them until the impression they leave with the reader is sure to be positive. Memorable. Apt. Strong.

The reader is always evaluating. When he meets one of these elements in your story, give him a reason to find it entertaining and a good fit.

Leave him with a good impression. Use these story firsts to snare the reader and keep him involved in the fiction.

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Beyond these basics, there are other points in a story where the writer can solicit a good impression, where readers are introduced to something new.

Each of these places gives the writer even more opportunity for creating strong ties between story and reader. When readers anticipate these elements, they’re signalling what’s important, what the writer should key in on.

These other elements include—

Introduction of the protagonist
How is he introduced? In what setting? With what action or dialogue? How does the writer describe him? What does the protagonist care about at the moment the reader first sees him?

Introduction of your lead character is one of the highlights of your story. Make it memorable. Make each word count. Paint the picture of your lead that you want the reader to carry with him into your story.

Remember that what he says, does, and thinks at his introduction will stay with the reader quite a while. Give him the words, actions, and thoughts that say exactly what you want to say about him at this introduction.

Introduction of the antagonist
Introduction of the antagonist is just as important and for the same reasons as the intro of the protagonist.

Who is this character? What first impression do you want readers to have of him or her?

Whatever introduction, whatever presentation you give of the antagonist is the one that readers will use to evaluate him, to measure him against the protagonist. Be aware of every word you use in your staging of him. The elements you choose are the only guides the reader has to form opinions. What you omit will remain unknown.

Introduction of setting
Be aware of the effects of setting. What does a particular location, era, social milieu, time of day, or weather condition do to the tone of a story? What emotions can it raise in a reader? What expectations are raised by choice of setting, especially the first setting?

Write setting with keen awareness of where it can take the reader. Know what impression your setting is creating in your reader.

Time the appearance of setting—of any of these elements—to best fit the story and give the reader the impression you intend for him to have.

Play with the timing of elements—switch the order of their introductions to see if moving them makes for stronger and more engaging story.

Introduction of tone
Use words, from the very first one, to create the tone you want the scene or story to have. Is the story light and loose, humorous, dark, elegant, wise-cracking, serious, or highbrow? Whatever tone you’re going for, choose the words to match. And get it right from the start.

The tone you establish at the opening is the one readers will expect to find throughout the story. Make it one that fits and make sure it’s the one you want.

Introduction of goal and motivation
The goals and motivations of both antagonist and protagonist drive the story. Make sure they’re sufficient to do that driving, strong enough to compel the actions of each character, and of interest to the reader.

A lame motivation won’t propel the story far and a weak goal will have the reader yawning. Make the introduction of both noteworthy and logical.

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How about considering some other story firsts that aren’t necessarily introductions for the reader?

First meet between protagonist and antagonist
Have you thought about this one? What happens the first time these two characters meet? Is there instant antagonism? False friendship? Fireworks?

Give thought to this first meet. It can send your story off into new directions or solidify elements you’ve already introduced. It’s definitely a key moment in your story.

Keep in mind, however, that the first meet might be no meet at all. In some stories, the protagonist and antagonist don’t meet in person or don’t meet until the climactic moment.

In what other ways could they be introduced?

One sure method is through the reports of other characters. The protagonist’s reaction to the deeds of his nemesis should be clear and strong. The antagonist, upon discovering he’s been thwarted by the protagonist, should have a marked reaction, one the reader can see and feel.

First meet of romance hero and heroine
If you write romance, this should be something you give great thought to. How do they meet, your hero and heroine? Where? Under what circumstances? What character traits do they reveal to each other at that first meet? What do they reveal to the reader? How does their first meet steer the story?

Is the meet funny, sweet, embarrassing, accidental? Make a deliberate choice and use it to propel your story.

First hook
Typically the first hook is in the story opening; it’s what you use to pull readers into the story.

You have to decide what that hook will be. Whether it’s done with action or emotion or through dialogue.

Most writers know they need to do something to draw the reader in, but they often only consider one or two options. Take some time and play with your first hook—see how many different ways you can open your story and find the one that best fits not only the characters, but the tone and impact you want for the story opening. Use the first hook to make an irresistible first impression.

First description
Where does it go, that first description? Before any action or the introduction of characters? Or do you dribble it into the opening scene slowly? Maybe you don’t even mention description right off, content to let action and dialogue open the story.

Yet at some time you’ll be writing description of place and character. Choose the timing of that first description wisely. Choose the words of that description wisely.

What do you want to accomplish with your description? How does it fit with the other elements? How can you combine description with something else so a single element does twice the work?

First dialogue
The first spoken words are key to story. What is said? Who speaks those first words and how? What impression do those words create? Where is the story steered by those first words?

The first words may not be spoken by either protagonist or antagonist. So, when these two do speak for the first time, what is revealed then? What do they set into motion by their first words? What tone is established, what emotion sought?

What is changed by first dialogue? What is unleashed?

First action
Writers should deliberately craft the first action to accomplish specific goals. What is set into motion? Who is affected? Who is the character behind the action and who else is involved?

What would happen if a different character had the first action moment? How would the story be changed?

What intensity should the writer go for? Should action come before description? Before dialogue?

If neither protagonist nor antagonist is involved with the first action, what do their first actions entail? How are both of their first actions introduced?

First challenge and/or first setback for protagonist (the antagonist should have a first setback as well)
What challenge do you drop your lead character into? How do you write his first setback? What is the result of that setback? How is the story changed?

A novel follows your protagonist through increasingly difficult situations, situations in which he meets a few successes but even more defeats. The first defeat may not outline all that will follow, but it should hint at the kind of problems the protagonist will deal with. Be sure to consider the setup to, the action of, and the consequences of that first setback. That moment, when the lead is first faced with something he can’t conquer, will reveal a lot about him and the story.

Make it memorable. Make it work for the story.

First victory of the antagonist
The antagonist may be defeated at story’s end (or he may not be). But he’s going to enjoy victories over the protagonist before that point. If he doesn’t, he’s not a worthy adversary for your lead character.

How does that first victory play out? Is the antagonist jubilant? Does he crow, making the protagonist even madder? Does he plan even more mayhem for your lead?

How does the protagonist react in terms of actions, thoughts, and dialogue?

Make sure that the antagonist’s first victory is a worthy one. If it’s not time for the protagonist to get too mad, don’t go overboard with the strength or importance of his loss. If you do want to make a statement with this first victory of the antagonist, go all out. Just be sure you have room to escalate later.

Remember that the first setback for the protagonist and the first victory for the antagonist are not the same. That is, they can be flip sides of the same coin—if they arise from the same event. But they create different results. One buoys a character, one discourages a character. Once can cause a character to relax his guard, the other could spur a character to new strengths.

First kiss
The first kiss is significant in a romance and could be important in other genres. Don’t allow your characters to fall into that first kiss; be deliberate in your choice of location and intensity. Consider other options for place and time of that kiss. Consider humor in lieu of passion.

Don’t forget buildup and anticipation. Readers are looking for that kiss—make sure it satisfies them and sends your characters into a new direction.

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I’m certain there are other firsts we could look at, other introductions that create a strong impact on the reader and in turn direct our stories. Don’t let this list limit those other possibilities. Instead, examine all the moments in your novel where you can make an impression on the reader, where what you write will influence the reader until you write something else to change that first impression.

Make the most of story firsts and use them to steer the story.

*******

First impressions are potent and enduring; be aware of their power.

Create deliberate first impressions and other firsts and put them to work in your fiction.

Write memorable firsts.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

4 Responses to “First Impressions and Introductions”

  1. Amber says:

    (Okay, I am only a kid, and also a beginner in writing, so this is more of a question.) I understand the article telling you to “begin with a bang” and all, but all my past writing teachers have showed us the plot-action mountain thing, how it starts low and strait, grows and eventually peaks up into the climax, then sinks down to the resolution, and finally flat lines into the end. But this article basically says the exact opposite of that, to pull action and excitement into the begining, not flat lining. This is so confusing!!! You’ll need to pull the reader in, yet stay mellow and low?! Please help me understand it!

  2. Hi, Amber. Unfortunately, writing advice will both contradict and seemingly contradict itself. I promise we’re not trying to drive writers crazy with our advice. Just laying it out in ways that make sense.

    Yes you want to have peaks in your stories, yet you also have to give readers something to catch their attention right at the start. Wherever you begin, you’ll have to move up from that point.

    One trick is knowing how to start somewhere and with some element that catches the reader’s attention while at the same time not starting so high that there’s no place to go later in the story.

    Start with an event of interest, yes. Then, after you’ve revealed more of your characters and their motivations and goals, turn up the heat. Write a story event or action that has even more of an impact on your characters. Get them to a decision point that costs them something. Bump it up, pour it on. Make the stakes higher, the costs even more personal, more deeply felt.

    You do keep going up until you reach that climax, but you can’t start with boredom. Sure, you can show a character going through a typical day. But only long enough to establish normal in the reader’s mind. Then mess up that character’s day. Shock him, surprise him. Make him think, wake up from the stupor that his routine has put him into.

    Send ripples into his life. Then overwhelm him with waves.

    The advice you’ve gotten is good. Look beyond just the basics, however. Look at what that advice tells you and the purpose for that advice. And then look at seemingly contrary advice and see if the purpose behind that advice isn’t different, if it wasn’t written to address a different issue. Then put the advice from both sources to work.

    Good luck with your writing. It’s a fun pursuit. And there’s a lot more to it than simply putting words on a page, as you’ve obviously discovered.

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