I have four books in front of me, all opened to their first chapter; different genres, different authors, chosen because they're the only ones available to me at the moment. In almost all of these books, the authors:
- have a hook to draw the reader in,
- introduce their main characters early and by name, and
- make the characters active in the setting.
If this was what a prison was like, Alexa Marcus thought, I could live here. Like, forever.
Finder tells the character's full name and immediately gives an indication of her age by his word choices--"Like, forever." At the start of the scene, Alexa is standing in line for Slammer, the “hottest bar in Boston,” and looking at a "line of frat boys trying too hard to be cool." We’re not talking hot, fast action here, but in having his character look around, he introduces his reader to the story world. Finder doesn't devote a lot of time to setting description, but within the first few paragraphs, we develop a mental image of where Alexa is, and we learn what she thinks of the place and those around her, and what she thinks of herself ("I'm so not suburban."). That's a lot to accomplish on the first page.
James Rubart in his novel, Rooms, gets right to the point with his opening line:From there, Rubart names his character, "Micah Taylor," and puts him in the preliminary setting, his office. A corner office, to be exact, overlooking Puget Sound. From this, we learn his character is wealthy and successful, and he's at work, probably in a suit and tie. Rubart could have given us a detailed description of the office, but unlike Finder's "Slammer," most people can picture an office. What's important is, Micah has a letter, the edge of which he taps against his palm as he reflects upon its contents. Again, not hot action, but we have the hook, the character's name, and enough action that the scene isn't stagnant.
Why would a man he never knew build him a home on one of the most spectacular beaches on the West Coast?
Historical novels are different in that the reader knows what era she's entering when she picks up the book. She already has a picture in her head of what to expect. Still, it's necessary to bring that setting to life.
In the opening paragraphs of To Win Her Heart, Karen Witemeyer did exactly what the other authors did: She hooked the reader with an intriguing line: “After two years, they'd finally cut him loose.” From there, she introduced Levi Grant, her hero in this historical romance, and hinted of his conflict (as an ex-convict, his future hinged on making a good impression in a new town).
All along, she sets the scene, not through description, but with props. Levi caught a ride in a “wagon bed.” He had a Bible and a letter of recommendation in his “knapsack.” He ducked under “a barren rose trellis” at "the parson's small, box-shaped house." Nothing elaborate, just snippets of period props to settle the reader into the setting.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and Lisa Gardner's The Survivors Club blows a lot of rules out of the water primarily because she wants to remain as obscure as possible about the people she refers to in her opening pages. The authors of mystery and suspense novels aren't always as interested in plopping their readers into the setting as they are clamping a hand around their wrists and dragging them into the tension.
Lisa does begin her prologue with a hook:
It all started as a conversation:
"The scientists are the problem--not the cops. Cops are just cops..."
But after the hook, her format is entirely different. For the duration of the prologue, we don't know who the characters are, other than through the prologue's title, "Eddie." We don't even learn which of the two characters engaged in this dialogue is Eddie. The only action occurring is the conversation between two unknowns, but the reader can derive quite a bit of information from the vile language these two use and the topic of discussion.
In the first chapter, we learn the setting is in Providence, Rhode Island, but we don't meet the main characters until chapters two and three. For Lisa's purposes, though, the conversation is all that's needed to bring the reader into the story, because she wants to develop tension first. She drops us into the story world using props, as Witemeyer does, but she reveals things in her own time.
All the books above were quick to reveal tension--this ingredient doesn't belong only in thrillers. And regardless of the differences or similarities of these authors' techniques for introducing their story worlds, what we don't see are long, drawn-out descriptions or elaborate backstories. The hook and an active character can transport your reader into your world quicker. Tension and conflict keep them there. Sympathetic characters--a topic for another time--make them bring their hearts along for the ride.