You may not be aware, but I’m kind of obsessed with first pages and chapters. They’re not the end-all-be-all for keeping your audience engaged, but it’s definitely true that if you lose readers in the opening, you risk losing them altogether. That old saying about us only getting one chance to make a good first impression? Totally true for books, too.
Personally, I’ve started a lot of books I didn’t finish. As a reader, this is no big deal; there are plenty of other fish in that particular sea, and it’s easy to find another book to read. As an author, this is alarming. Why aren’t these books engaging? I’ve done some research on my own and have come up with a number of reasons why books fail to hold my attention. I’ve also discussed this question with others, and I’m finding that failure to connect with the character is a common reason why people stop reading. As a writer, this is good to know. I definitely want my audience to be invested in the hero. To make that happen, empathy is key.
Empathy draws readers in and keeps them engaged. In today’s market, with its growing availability of affordable books, it’s imperative that we hook readers from the very start. To achieve this end, here are some elements that can help you create reader empathy early on.
One way to endear your character to readers is to show the desperation of his situation. A character who is stuck in a no-win scenario can evoke sympathy in readers who will want him to escape. Melvin Udall (As Good as It Gets) is nasty, offensive, and self-serving. This becomes apparent in the opening scene, when he shoves his neighbors little dog down the garbage chute then lies about it. We can also see right off that his obsessive-compulsive disorder is isolating him from everyone. He’s completely cut off and alone. Despite his awfulness, the audience can’t help but feel badly for him and hope that his life is somehow going to get better.
Villains can also play a part in establishing a hero’s desperation; the worse your villain is, the more readers will want the hero to triumph. Think the acid-dripping xenomorph from the Alien franchise, or Jigsaw from the Saw movies. Introduce a truly ruthless villain early on, and you’ll build build reader empathy even for a deeply flawed character.
To a certain degree, human beings are inherently curious. Solving a mystery and getting answers to our questions give us a distinctly satisfying feeling. Take advantage of this part of your reader’s nature by raising a question about the reader early on. Why is she sabotaging herself? What is she afraid of? Why is she responding this way? What’s her history with this person who’s getting her all riled up? When we provide character-related questions—particularly those that are emotionally charged—it raises the reader’s interest in the character and makes them want to keep reading to find answers.
I think we all can agree that it’s hard to fall in love with someone you just can’t stand. Even the most abrasive or offensive characters need good qualities to round them out.
The screenwriters for Good Will Hunting drew on this technique when they opened the movie with a seemingly ordinary janitor exhibiting exceptional intelligence by solving a genius-level math problem. Likewise, Will Freeman from About a Boy is self-centered and lazy, but readers are entertained by his sarcastic wit, which is evident the moment Will begins narrating.
So be sure to give your hero some endearing traits: compassion, humor, loyalty, courage, etc.. Show these traits early on—in the opening pages, if possible–and the reader will be that much closer to jumping on the hero’s bandwagon.
Readers come from all cultures, backgrounds, and experiences, making it hard to create a hero that everyone can relate to. The way around this is to incorporate universal themes or problems into your story such as the loss of a loved one, wanting to fit in, self-doubt, or a moral dilemma that makes him question his beliefs. Your hero could be a giant porcine robot from the planet Oink, but incorporating a universal theme for him like redemption makes him relatable. Readers get him because they’re familiar with that theme, the character’s struggle with it, and how his life will be impacted once he figures everything out.
Wounds are sad. Painful. They make us vulnerable, and vulnerability in a hero is attractive because it makes the reader root for him. As in real life, a character’s past helps define his present, molding him into the person he is at his core. Hint at your hero’s wounds and it will tug the reader’s heart strings, bringing the reader firmly to the hero’s side.
These are only a few ways to amp up the empathy factor in your opening pages. What do you think? Have you read a book lately that utilized any of these techniques? What other methods might we use?
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.