Secret First Page Templates of Bestselling Authors (Part II)

May 9, 2013 — 3 Comments

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In the last post, we looked at the first template of bestselling authors, the Character Introduction. If you haven’t read that one, here’s the link.

Today I want to look at the second secret template of bestselling authors, the Suspense Opening. The Suspense Opening template is probably the most popular among the bestselling authors, according to my ten-year research.

While the Character Introduction template offers numerous options for writers, the Suspense Opening is perhaps the most versatile of the Secret Templates. Bestselling authors from every genre consistently use it.

The major element in the suspense opening is (no suspense here!) suspense. Suspense opens a myriad of doorways into the story.

A definition of suspense is probably helpful at this point. For our purposes, suspense can be defined as the visceral emotion that fills the gap between wanting to know and knowing (Tweet it). In other words, suspense is a feeling triggered by specific literary techniques.

In the context of this template, one technique used by many bestselling authors is to begin a story with an event (and less often, dialogue) that hints at looming danger, threat, conflict, romance or mystery. The event – because of it’s unusual nature or inherent tension – pricks the readers curiosity immediately.

For example, my novel Dark Halo begins with an angel falling from the sky. The very next chapter opens with a strange, blinding yellow light flooding the bedroom of the protagonist. Both of these events are intended to draw the reader into the story through the emotion of suspense.

If done correctly, what’s happening in the reader’s mind as he or she reads the first page is this: “What’s going on here? Something’s up! I’ve got to keep reading to find out.”  Those types of thoughts are tied to the desired emotions of curiosity, suspense and fascination.

Pitfalls of this template

  • Opening too strong
  • Opening too weak
  • Confusing the reader
Opening too strong: Opening a story with too much suspense can be detrimental to the story because it can leave readers feeling unsatisfied. Most stories are structured to escalate in in pace and suspense over the course of the narrative with the greatest suspense and action at the end. When we open with superfluous suspense on the first page, there is a unconscious reader expectation that the story will continue to escalate to even greater heights of suspense, action and pace in the following chapters. The solution of course is to pull back some of the suspense in this opening. Try to downgrade the suspense just a bit while still grabbing the reader’s attention enough to get them to read the rest of the story. Sometimes, it’s helpful to consider putting this opening later in the story where it might better fit in the overall suspense arc.
Opening too weak:  Starting too weak can sometimes be a death sentence for story. If we are not able to grab reader attention immediately, sometimes the reader gives up and doesn’t continue with the story. Even if the reader does keep reading , there likely they are likely to feel unsatisfied with this beginning. The solution, of course, is to ramp up the suspense. Add another layer of conflict and tension, increase the speed of the narrative or add some other element that creates mystery, threat or looming danger.
Confusing the reader: This pitfall is the most dangerous of the three. Readers who feel confused quickly close books. In other words, confusion is the fastest route to losing reader  interest (Tweet it). Sometimes writer’s leave key details out with the intention of building suspense and intrigue, yet instead end up with reader bewilderment. Masterful suspense is grounded in a balance between sharing and concealing information. It’s the difference between a complete lack of understanding of what’s happening and strategic filtering of story data . The solution is to add a few key details to give readers a firm footing in the opening scene. Consider explaining the characters, the setting and perhaps something about the purpose or goal of the scene (or story).
The least you need to know: Suspense Openings work best when writer’s leave out one or two key details, but not all of them.
What other ways do you create suspense in the opening of your stories?

3 responses to Secret First Page Templates of Bestselling Authors (Part II)


    Thanks for following me! Great blog this, plenty of practical help.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Secret First Page Templates of Bestselling Authors (Part III) | Christopher Kokoski - May 17, 2013

    […] the last two posts, we have discussed the Character Introduction template and the Suspense Opening template. Another structure used by bestselling authors in vastly different genres is the […]

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