This question came up in an online writing group of which I'm part. It resonated pretty deeply with me because it's something with which I've struggled.
Any well-meaning crit partner or beta reader will tell you the ideal stories start out with the reader being thrown immediately into the action. Think of stories like Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," which opens with the murder of the main character.
That method of storytelling worked for Sebold because of the nature and point of view of the story.
Unfortunately, that doesn't work for all stories. Some simply require a bit of set up before you hit that first plot point, the big event that kicks everything into motion.
I ran into this issue with LR2H. When I first became serious about publishing LR2H, my first beta reader told me the beginning felt stagnant, like I was merely describing a day in the life of my main character. I struggled for a long time for a way to make the beginning less stagnant.
It took a lot of work to find a good balance between plot and backstory without going ultra-heavy on the flashbacks.
So how does a writer keep a reader interested while setting the story up for that first big drop? Well, it takes a combination of things.
Your writing has to convey a deep intimacy with the character from whose point of view you're telling the story. Despite what they think they want, readers don't want to see words on a page. They're voyeurs who want to step inside our characters so they can see and feel what our characters see and feel. That happens through the writer's voice. A good voice can make or break a story.
It's been said many, many times before, but it's worth reiterating: Give your main character a goal, a goal that is obvious to the reader, and then do everything in your power to make sure he/she can't reach it. That first big plot point should be the ultimate breaking point for your main character, the point that makes the reader say, "That's it. There's no way he/she can rebound from this, so now what?"
If you don't reach the first major plot point until 70 pages in, then you might need to consider developing a subplot that ties in heavily with your main plot.
Don't lie to your reader. Your character's goals should be consistent throughout the story, and your subplot should be a major contributor to whatever is keeping your main character from achieving his/her goals.
Done correctly, your subplot will allow you to sprinkle in pieces of backstory while simultaneously pushing the story forward and will add a good bit of depth and emotion when it comes together at the end.
4. Don't give away the farm in the first chapter.
Have you ever met an oversharer? You know those people on buses, planes and trains who, within five minutes of meeting you, feel comfortable telling you about how their one-legged, bisexual crack-addicted relative owes the mob twenty bucks? (You think I'm making this up?)
That's an oversharer. You generally don't want to spend any more of your time with them than you have to. They're almost as overwhelming in the literary world as they are in real life.
Many of the most alluring people in the world are the ones who reveal themselves little by little. Characters are no different. Let them be a little mysterious. Curiosity is a potent tool for keeping a reader hooked. Mystery keeps them intrigued.
5. Don't get locked into the mindset that THIS is the way your story goes.
Sometimes writers are their own worst enemy. We get set in ideas about how the story is supposed to go and refuse to consider any other way of telling it.
Practice some free-writing exercises and allow your character to take control. You might be surprised what your characters have to say.
6. If all else fails, let the story marinate.
Sometimes letting a manuscript sit for awhile is the best thing a writer can do. Spend time reading different types of books to see how other authors open their stories. Come back to your manuscript in a couple of weeks with a pair of fresh eyes.
You might be surprised by what you see.
* * *Kathryn Harris is a journalist, a weekend blogger, a wife, a mother of two and the author of "The Long Road to Heaven," a novel about finding faith and forgiveness in the aftermath of addiction.