Here’s a perfect picture to illustrate the concept I am about to explain. The place is a simple jar. The person, a businessman, is clearly distraught. The problem is obvious. There’s a lid on the jar; he can’t get out. I’m immediately drawn into his predicament, and story questions surface: How did he get in there and how’s he going to get out?
When I begin to read a story, be it a Colorado Gold contest entry or a TWB Press submission, I look for a reason NOT to read it. Think how much easier it would be for me to turn on the TV, play my Wii games, or play my guitar, or throw a ball for my dog, so there has to be something compelling in this story start to interest me above all my other interests.
So I look for the 3Ps: A Place. A Person. A Problem... In that order. I’d like them all set out for me, nice and neat, in the first paragraph (or two). I want to be grounded in a place, I want to know whose head I’m in, and I want to know there’s a problem to be solved. If not, if the author doesn’t give me a reason to keep reading, I’ve got other things to do.
Example: Here’s the opening paragraph from Kevin J Anderson’s Hidden Empire:
“Safe in orbit high above the gas giant, Margaret looked through the observation port at continent-sized hurricanes and clouds far below. She wondered how long it would take for the entire planet to catch fire, once the experiment began.”
I know exactly where I am, whose head I’m in, and what’s about to become a problem. Place: I’m in orbit above a gas planet like Jupiter, safe, I’m led to believe. Person: I’m in Margaret’s head as she looks out the observation port; I see what she sees. Problem: I know the planet is going to catch fire as part of an experiment. Experiments never go off as planned. That’s what I’m thinking, and I have to read on to see if I’m right or wrong.
I look for the 3Ps at the beginning of every chapter and every scene break. Cliffhangers are essential to a good scene ending. They make the reader turn the page. However, if the first paragraph (or two) of the next scene doesn’t pass the 3Ps test, the cliffhanger fizzles.
Not everyone uses this technique. There’s no rule chiseled in rock. Some authors start off with a line or two of dialogue to bring in a problem. The words hang in midair until a character is introduced and set in a scene on stage. Some writers start with narrative exposition. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Others start with back story. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” But for every time it’s done well, many more times it’s done poorly.
You can never go wrong with the 3Ps.