When I picked up the latest Lee Child novel, Never Go Back – well, grabbed it out of my wife’s hand as she walked through the door – and opened it up to the first page, after the first sentence I had to pause. ‘He nailed it,’ I thought to myself, ‘the bugger did it again.’ Then I dove back in and didn’t surface for two days.
Let me explain. I’ve been studying writing for a few years now, learning anything I can about how to get it right. More and more in today’s world of instant hits and fast rejections, ‘getting it right’ means catching the reader from the first page and not letting go. Ideally you want to engage the reader in the very first sentence. You want to bring them personally into the story, introduce tension, ask a question, intrigue and excite your reader as soon as you can.
Not too much to ask from a sentence, is it? Let’s see how it’s done by a master.
“Eventually they put Reacher in a car and drove him to a motel a mile away, where the night clerk gave him a room, which had all the features Reacher expected, because he had seen such rooms a thousand times before.”
Even if you’ve never encountered this series before, you’re interested. Sounds like a strange sort of guy with a nomadic past, messed up with some sort of people who have control over him. Maybe you’ll read some more. Maybe you’ll even like it.
If you are a writer, or a student of writing, you’re gobsmacked. Stunned. In 41 words Lee Child has managed to accomplish everything.
Bring the reader into the story, into the middle of the action. The very first word does that. One word – Eventually – tells you that lots has already happened, has you arriving in the middle of something juicy. What’s happened? You really want to find out. It’s even okay that the novel starts with an adverb, for heaven’s sake. One single word, and you are hitting the ground running.
Pose the reader a question. Well, how better to throw out a question than to use the universal bogeyman, ‘they’? We don’t know who they are. We know there’s more than one of them, and we know they are strong enough to control and dictate the movements of a nomad. They even have enough cash to spring for a motel room. That’s enough. We want to know more about who ‘they’ are, and we are willing to invest the reading time to find out.
We’re on word two now, in case you lost track.
Introduce the character. Okay, his name is Reacher. Assuming the very mention of the name doesn’t ignite a passion for unstoppable vigilante justice in your breast – that you’ve never read a Reacher novel, in other words – you’re still intrigued. Nice name. Evocative. Is he being overpowered by these people, or going along for the ride? Why has he been in a thousand motel rooms? He seems singularly unimpressed with this turn of events. Maybe you’ll read more. Consider the character introduced. You’ll have to wait a page or two before he destroys his first round of opposition and you really get to know him. For now, you’ll just keep reading.
Okay, almost done. Throw in a taste of description, the dash of seasoning to set the scene. A motel room, a car, everything you expect and nothing more. We’ve all been there. We all know the place. We’re instantly comfortable. We don’t need to know anything else in order to get on with the important stuff.
The hook is set. In one sentence. Wow.
Lots can be learned from studying the really good writers, especially once you have an idea what to look for. Of course, Never Go Back turns into a ripping good read and Lee Child has a bunch more to teach us along the way – but you’ll have to pick up the book for that. I highly advise it. Just make sure you have a day or two with nothing else on your schedule.