You need a strong opening to hook the reader into devouring the rest of your book. STRANGER THINGS shows us how to nail a strong opening every time.
Here comes this guy! Who is he? What’s he running from? Will he make it?
Immediately, those questions matter. Setup now enhances the story.
The scientist isn’t just going to the elevator. He’s RUNNING. From who? From what? We’ll follow this guy while we wait, because survival is one of the easiest motivations to empathize with. Whether it’s a hero or villain, I’M GOING TO DIE is the universal white flag almost everyone responds to.
But imagine if he was simply walking from one end of the hallway to the elevator. Where are the stakes? What’s his goal? Who is this guy? Why should I care?
Ultimately, that’s all the reader needs. Readers will accept ENORMOUS amounts of confusion and intrigue so long as you give them a clear reason to care.
Something is after Will!
First, he runs.
Then he needs to find his mom.
Then he needs to call 911.
Finally, he takes matters into his own hands.
This goal to ESCAPE AND SURVIVE is deliberately repeated/mirrored. And it shows us the true stakes. It’s one thing for a middle-aged scientist to run from a monster in an underground bunker. As far as we know, the scientist might have created the monster. Or set it free. Basically, this might be a demise the guy brought on himself.
But for Will? Absolutely not. We love him, least of all because he shows his heroic nature early on by telling the truth when he didn't have to.
Will is a child. If a monster is willing to come after a child, then the audience intuitively knows that this monster is evil. It can come for anyone, even the most innocent among us.
Sheriff Hooper shows that you don’t need a life or death situation for a character to have a clear goal.
Hooper states his goal clearly: COFFEE AND CONTEMPLATION.
Now all of the obstacles matter. His secretary stands in his way. He bypasses her, though. Success!
Except then he faces a new obstacle. An escalation. He enters his office and there is Joyce, Will’s mom.
It turns out he can’t avoid what’s coming. And he might have made it worse for trying to.
Do this same thing for your story. Go through every chapter and see if your characters have an in-scene goal. This transforms pacing and puts your character conflicts directly on the page.
Suddenly, you can put a TON of setup and exposition in plain sight. Even readers who see what you're doing will go LOL that's amazing. Because now readers NEED to know that information. We connect with the conflict, and that compels us to connect with the characters.
Now unfortunate circumstances become obstacles our characters must overcome to achieve their goals. To be better people.
Authentic obstacles are compelling. They hook us not just to the story but to the characters. We WANT to see how that conflict changes them. How their goals evolve. When (if) they see why their current strategy actually makes the problem worse.
NOTE: A previous version of this article using cat gifs is available here.
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