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Lee Child Tells How to Grab & Hold a Reader’s Attention

Biff Barnes

How do you grab your reader’s attention with the first chapter and hold onto it all the way through your book?

Thriller writer Lee Child offered a method in the New York Times Sunday Review this week with an article titled A Simple Way to Create Suspense.

“As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer,” said Child.

Courtesy of the 7th Street Theater under Creative Commons

Let’s look at two of my favorite classic movies to see how it works.

Think about the original Star Wars. (What? You didn’t see it? Here’s a link to Wikipedia for a plot summary.) The movie begins with Luke Skywalker cleaning up two droids, R2-D2 and C3PO which his uncle had just bought. In the process he activates a message from Princess Leia entreating Obi-wan Kenobi to “help us Obi-wan. You’re our only hope.” What’s this all about? Who is the princess? What’s her cause? Who is Obi-wan Kenobi? Will her appeal meet with success? The questions Luke’s discovery triggers are enough to drive the action until he blows up the death star at the end of the movie.

Now remember Orson Wells’ classic Citizen Kane, the story of a newspaper mogul based on William Randolph Hearst. (Here’s Wikipedia if you need it.) The movie opens as an editor watches a newsreel obituary showing Kane saying "rosebud” as he dies. Nobody knows what it means. The editor assigns a reporter to find out. The reporter’s search drives the entire movie. He interviews everyone who had ever been close to Kane looking for an answer. The newspaperman’s life emerges in a series of flashbacks. As the film ends, the reporter has failed to find an answer, but viewers see workers disposing of trash throw a child’s sled into a fireplace. The sled had belonged to Kane as a boy, which was the only time in his life when he had been happy. On the sled the viewers can read the word “Rosebud.”

Courtesy of The Official Star Wars under Creative Commons

In both cases, as Lee Child says, “The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer.”

Okay, you’re saying, that works great for fiction, but I’m writing non-fiction. No problem!

You are writing a family history. What’s a theme that seems to run through the generations? Use an introduction to frame your story by posing a question about that theme. Here are three examples:

  • Why has volunteerism and providing service to their community been such an important part of the lives of so women in my family?   
  • When great-great grandfather decided to bring his family to America he said he wanted his children to live a better life than he had. So, how has great-great grandfather’s vision motivated our family since that day?
  • Why have ancestors since the American Revolution volunteered to serve in one of the branches of our military service?

In the conclusion, after telling the stories of your ancestors’ come back to your question and tie things together by answering it.

The same technique works well in framing a memoir.

As Child observed, “Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked.”