Open the Door and Let ‘Em In*
A recent post from Elizabeth Spann Craig (originally posted by Janice Hardy) has got me thinking about how readers are drawn into stories. It’s a really important consideration, because most readers decide very quickly – sometimes within a few pages – whether they’re going to continue reading. So, a book’s first impression is crucial.
When it comes to crime fiction, there are several ways to invite the reader into a story. One of the most straightforward is for a murder to occur or a body to be found right away. This gets the reader’s attention and sets up the story for an investigation. Agatha Christie’s The Boomerang Clue (AKA Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?), for instance, opens with a golf match between Bobby Jones and his friend, Dr. Thomas. When a golf ball goes over a cliff (about four pages into the story), Bobby discovers a man who’s just about to die. The man utters a cryptic question: ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ and soon dies. Now, the reader is invited to engage in the story and there are a few things (the body, the clue) to pique interest. As the story goes on, Bobby and his friend Frankie Derwent find that this death is connected to another, earlier, death.
L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins with a body, too. As the story opens, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. He’s standing by the body as the novel begins, and the reader is immediately drawn to wonder why one elderly man would kill another. It’s the motive, too, that becomes really important as the story develops. In fact, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg suspects Wilcox rather soon in the investigation, but he can’t work out what the motive would be. It’s an interesting case of inviting the reader to speculate on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘who.’
Even when authors don’t begin a book with a murder or the discovery of a body, they sometimes draw the reader in with some other sort of tension that gets the reader involved in the story quickly. For example, Elizabeth Spann Craig writes the Memphis Barbecue series as Riley Adams. Rubbed Out, the fourth book in the series, begins with a conversation. Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, is talking to her friend, Cherry. They’re talking about the upcoming Rock ‘n Ribs Festival’s barbecue contest, and their conversation draws the reader in in two ways. For one thing the reader gets a sense of who the characters are. There’s also some tension as Cherry describes one of the contestants, Reuben Shaw, and how unpleasant he is. There’s also a bit of tension when Cherry asks a reluctant Lulu to support her by going to Friends and Family night, just to show up Shaw. Matters quickly get worse when Cherry finds Shaw murdered and becomes a suspect. Here, there’s the background tension of the competition, the tension caused by Reuben Shaw’s personality, and the tension as Lulu decides how much she wants to get involved.
Some authors choose to draw the reader in by establishing context and physical setting. That can be highly effective, especially in novels with a strong sense of setting and local culture. For example, Bill Crider’s Sheriff Dan Rhodes series is set in rural Blacklin County, Texas, and the reader is placed there very quickly. In Too Late to Die, the first in the series, the story opens with Rhodes trying to help one of his constituents find out who’s been breaking into his store. Right away, the reader is welcomed into this small-town setting, and gets a chance to ‘meet’ a few of the characters. And Crider doesn’t make the reader wait long before the murder – the main plot point of the book – is discovered. The body of Jeanne Clinton is found in her home, and at first, it looks as though her husband, Elmer, might have killed her. But he claims he was at work at the time, and there’s evidence that he was. So, Rhodes has to widen the proverbial net. He finds that more than one person might have wanted the victim dead.
Fans of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series will know that his books also have a strong sense of place and local culture, and they welcome the reader into rural Wyoming, where Pickett is the local game warden. As Winterkill begins, for instance, Pickett is out on patrol, checking for poachers and animals in jeopardy. That part of the story depicts rural Wyoming in all of its dangerous beauty, placing the reader distinctly there. Then, Pickett finds US Forestry manager Lamar Gardiner shooting elk. When he arrests Gardiner, things begin to go downhill, and it doesn’t help matters that there’s a major storm coming up. Then, someone murders Gardiner. An easy target for blame is Nate Romanowski, who’s somewhat of a loner. But Pickett doesn’t think he’s guilty, so he looks more deeply into the matter. He finds that the Powers That Be would rather sacrifice Romanowski than air some very dirty ‘laundry.’ Like many of the other books that feature Pickett, this one invites the reader to feel a strong sense of place.
There are, of course, lots of other ways to invite a reader into a story. The key is to pique the reader’s interest and get the reader to care about what’s going to happen next. Readers aren’t likely to truly engage in a story unless they’re invested like that. What about you? How do you like to be invited into a story? If you’re a writer, how do you extend the invitation?
Thanks, Elizabeth and Janice for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Let ‘Em In.