The Indiana Jones Rule
It all started when I found myself three chapters into a book by a new author who was making the single most frequent mistake new authors make (and yeah. I did, too). It wasn’t that the writing wasn’t good. It was. Descriptive, insightful, full of life. It wasn’t that I didn’t think the story might become compelling. But it was the third chapter and nothing had happened.
I was trying to decide how much time I was going to give the author to get to the point before bailing, when suddenly the heroine steps out of a door to be met by a guy holding a gun.
Then why had I already been reading for three chapters? Because the author wanted me to care about her character so that it mattered when she got into trouble. This translated into 60 pages of backstory of her family, her career, her tragic lost love, her wandering a bad neighborhood to help a child. The book opened on the way to the beginning of the book.
The first three chapters were really for the author. That was when she got to know her character, motivations, conflict. But the action hadn’t started. And especially in this day and age of frenetic media, nobody waits through the pages spent on the way to the beginning.
She should have opened the book at the gun. She could have sprinkled the rest in as the story moved along(my critique partner Elizabeth Grayson calls it Peppering the Stew). But the first thing a writer must do is to hook the reader. I call it the Indiana Jones Rule, or Write as you Fish. If you want to write a book that keeps your reader turning the pages, you should start right where the action starts, or, as one teacher said, where the protagonist’s life changes forever. You hook the reader and then slowly reel them in for the rest of the book.
So. Indiana Jones. Think of The Lost Ark. Where does it start? Where Indie is teaching? Where he’s in his house talking to people, or in the hallway talking to the professor so we know exactly who he is by the time a big rock is chasing him? Nope. We start with the rock. What we know about Indie is that he’s handsome and cool and has a whip. And, we know his weakness is that he hates snakes(and if we’re good writers, we know those snakes will show up again later). We meet his enemy and know they’ll have more adventures.
It’s only after twelve minutes that we find out that in his real life Indie is a mild-mannered Midwestern archeology professor who is bemused that the girls think he’s cute. We see his co-workers; we see his house. Now we get exactly why Indie was in S. America in a cave.
But if the movie had started in that classroom, we would have been bored long before the rock.
In my first novel, A Stranger’s Smile, my heroine was the heir to a great steel family who should have spent her days in glamorous idleness. But she has left all that to become a country nurse in Appalachia. I so wanted my readers to root for her right away; to know what was at stake for her. The book opened with her riding her horse back up to her cabin. It’s fall and hawks are circling, the foliage is changing, chimney smoke is rising, and she’s thinking about her former life and how much she’s changed. How she is tired and sore from her work, but she’d rather be there. But when she arrives at her cabin, it’s to find a neighbor waiting with a telegram from her family, dragging her right back into her old world. Before she can do anything, another neighbor shows up to tell her a man has fallen off a cliff in the nearby national park, and can she help rescue him?
I had two very good friends who beta read for me. They both gave the manuscript back to me and said, “Gorgeous writing. I could really see the setting, I understood who she was. Throw it out.”
As you can imagine, I objected. I defended my heroine, my words, my circling hawks.
“Throw it out,” they said again. “We really don’t care.”
I rewrote that opening five times, each time winnowing away more and more of the opening, per my friends’ suggestions. I murdered my darlings.
Want to know where the book ended up opening? With the line; “Ya know, it’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to undress a handsome man.” She’s at the bottom of the cliff in the windy dark assessing the fallen man by flashlight. The injured man is dressed like a businessman and unconscious, so he’s a puzzle. She’s attracted, of course, but she knows better.
That version of the book sold in 48 hour (it’s out of print, which is good, because the rest is in need of revision).
Hook your audience. Set up the puzzle with some action(and not necessarily guns or chases. A meeting. A confrontation. The moment of change). Give us a hint of who our character is; a hint of what the conflict is, the motivations, the enemy. Do it in the first chapter. But don’t give away all the secrets. That’s what the reeling in is all about. The secrets you hint at put suspense into every book. They make your audience turn pages to find the answers that one by one will lead them right to the black moment when the biggest secret is revealed.
One more thing. Every rule is broken. You either break them big or you follow them until you have a reputation. A classic example of this rule being broken is the movie Up. It’s genius because the very thing that makes that movie so special is what wrecks so many books. They get away with it because they’re genius. I’m not. So I followed the rules til I made my rep. THEN I broke them. Big. But then, A Stranger’s Smile was forty books ago.
New York Times bestselling, award-winning author Eileen Dreyer has published 41 fiction novels in most genres, and will soon publish her first non-fiction book, TRAVELS WITH DAVE, an account of the pilgrimage she and friends have been making to take the ashes of a friend around the world.
A retired trauma nurse, she still lives in St. Louis with her family. She has animals but refuses to subject them to the limelight.