Ominous Intros: How H.G. Wells Changed Everything for Me

Few leads have as profound an impact on me as the first pages of War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (1866–1946).
 
Read the first sentence, and you’ll understand:
 
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
 
What can writers learn from this brilliant lead?

1. Capturing and Keeping Attention

Wells captures our attention with the first five words. We ask, “Believe what?” We feel our blood pumping ominously; we need to know more.

And then Wells delays the answer by specifying time, “in the last years of the nineteenth century”—a great technique to pull your hooked reader further into your story.

2. Placing Omens

Our eyes fly over the words, anxious to learn what was so unbelievable. And once we realize that we were being watched, the omen is complete.
 
But Wells adds another omen by stating that these intelligences are as mortal as we are. This reminds the reader of our mortality, of what is at stake.

3. Making It Visible

Wells then agitates the feeling of impending doom by providing a lively metaphor. We imagine a massive microscope tube hanging above our heads, and we realize how small and vulnerable we are.
 
He stacks omen upon omen. No way you can stop reading.

4. Heightening Suspense with Descriptive Words

With the adverbs “keenly and closely,” Wells adds suspense. Usually, I’d suggest choosing only the strongest of two adverbs (if any), but this set raises anxiety—it shows how close they are.

But whenever you use adverbs, make sure they do valuable work.

5. Using Voice to Accentuate the Mystery

The focus is on us, and the watchers are unknown, unreachable. To create that effect, Wells uses the passive voice. The active voice would have subtracted from the suspense.

But only use a passive construction when it does a better job telling your story than an active one. Study the masters to get a feeling for this.

Run to the Library

It hurt not to quote more of this thrilling novel. But I suggest you run to the library to pick up a copy.

Those who have hired me as their editor know I always search for elements in the story that hook and hold the reader—surprises, conflicts, idiosyncracies, omens.

If you want me to do the same with your story, you know where to find me.

Enjoyed this blog?

Have a look at my other posts. And if you need help finishing your story, let’s chat.

Ominous Intros: How H.G. Wells Changed Everything for Me

Niels Kwakernaak

Nonfiction Editor

Thanks for your interest in my experience and ideas. I write these blogs to help you overcome the hurdles of being a writer.

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