First Impressions

December 26, 2009 at 5:30 am (hooks, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , )


First of all, I hope everyone had a good Christmas.  Now, to the post.

When you meet someone for the first time you make an instant judgement.  Sometimes that judgement is fair but usually it is usually superficial and misleading, but we still make an initial judgement.

We do that with books as well.  We look at the cover art, the title and the blurb and we make an instant judgement so that by the time we are actually sitting down to read the book we have more or less made up our minds as to whether or not we think it is going to be any good.

That’s why the first chapter of the story is so incredibly important.  It is also why the first line and the first page have to be spot on.

You could make the argument that some stories just start slow and get more interesting as they go on but most readers would agree that if the book hasn’t grabbed them in that first chapter it is unlikely that they are going to invest anymore time in it.

Look at it this way – you meet someone for the first time and you make a judgement about them that isn’t favourable but then you start talking.  They turn out to be really interesting and funny and they have something to say and so you keep talking to them or you organise a time to meet again.  The cover art and the title and the blurb may leave someone hesitant about reading the book but they decide to give it a go anyway (maybe they are bored or they’re waiting for their friend to finish browsing the book shop).  They pick up the book and read the first page.  You want them to be hooked so that when the shop owner glares at them for reading something they haven’t paid for, or their friend comes back, they buy the book and finish reading it.

So how do you write this brilliant opening? I’m still working on that but I have read a lot of advice about it.  More importantly, I think about the books I read and what has made me keep read them.  When I go to book fairs I usually grab a whole stack of books and then I stand and read the first page of each one.  If I find my fingers tweaking to turn the page I know I’m buying the book.  If I am curious about what is going to happen next, I buy the book.  If I read the first page and still haven’t been given a single reason to read on, the book goes back on the shelf.

As a reader what grabs my attention?

– Meeting a character while they are doing something.  I like character driven stories so I want to meet one of the characters as soon as possible but I don’t want them to just be described to me.  I want to see them doing something and draw my own conclusions about the character from what they do and how they do it.

– Peculiarities.  I really like reading something that is just a bit odd and makes me think, what the.  I then have to read the rest of the book to find out the why and how.  Generally I don’t try to write these openings but I love reading them.  For example, George Orwell’s ‘1984’ had the clocks striking thirteen and instantly you wondered what was going on and you were hooked into this world he had constructed.  Or at least I did.

– Really strong visuals.  This is mostly in fantasy/horror where the first page or so is usually written about the ancient evil that is awakening or seeking a way to cause havoc and these are really cliché openings for the most part but when they get it right they can be really powerful.  A good strong visual of the evil that is going to come forward later so that as we flick to the group who are going to end up battling the evil the contrast is clear, sets up a reasonably good, if predictable, story.

What don’t I like?

– Long descriptions of setting.  If I get to the end of the first page and so far all I’ve read is description, I’m going to pass.

– Bad writing.  Not necessarily grammatically bad, particularly if the story is written in first person, but bad as in slow and clunky and awkward.  If it is painful to read and has no flow I am not going to read beyond the first page.

– Dialogue between two characters that painstakingly explains the back story.  Possibly this is better than a prologue, particularly if the dialogue is well written and interesting, and possibly if it also manages to reveal something about the characters who are talking, but for the most part I’m going to pass on this story.

What do you like when you read a book?  What annoys you?  What is the best opening you have ever read?  Looking forward to hearing your ideas.

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18 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    I love reading books that start out with a question. Maybe not *literally* a question, but something that makes me wonder “Who WAS that person?” or “What’s going on?”

    “I Capture the Castle” : “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I like those books as well where you just want to know what was going on and why and you are caught up in the story without even realising it.
      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Rhiannon Hart said,

    I like something that really drops you in it, both character and setting at the same time. First lines have to be amazing. The first page is more important to the blurb I find.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Definitely – the blurb is frequently misleading and doesn’t really give you the writer’s style. The first page on the other hand…
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. dragonfly83 said,

    I love a book that begins with a good chase scene full of movement (not too much internalization). You not only want to know who the character is running from and why (and who these characters are in general), but you also have to know the outcome.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Sometimes I find it hard to care about the characters involved in the chase if I don’t know them before hand. It depends on how it is written as to whether I want to know who they are and why they are running/chasing. Still, at least you are dropped right into the story and you usually want to at least find out the outcome.

  4. Therese said,

    I guess all I really need is to be able to see a striking image, something out of the ordinary, something ‘off.’

  5. Jeanne said,

    I think about this a lot, too. And I take books that really hook me and I re-read the beginning paragraphs/pages over and over, trying to ferret out the secret.

    I love the first line of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander: “It wasn’t a very likely place for a disappearance, at least at first glance.”

    It makes you wonder, “Who disappeared?” “How?” “Why?” “From where?” “Where is this place that’s so prosaic no one would expect a disappearance?”

    And Little Women is a classic: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without presents.”

    And you immediately ask yourself, “Why don’t they have any presents?”

    So I guess for me, it’s the story question that really captures me.

  6. jmartinlibrarian said,

    I like an opening which crystallizes the conflict of the story in a sentence or two. One of my fave beginnings is from Rosemary Clement Moore’s PROM DATES FROM HELL. Take a gander at this first two sentences:

    “As an interactive horror experience, with beasts from hell, mayhem, gore, and dismemberment, it was an impressive event. As a high school prom, however, the evening was marginally less successful.”

    LOVE it. Kinda sums things up nicely, doesn’t it?

  7. Cassandra Jade said,

    Thanks Therese for the comment. I think something out of the ordinary is a good way to grab the readers attention.
    Jeanne, thanks so much for sharing these openings. They do make you want to read more and ask questions.
    Jmartinlibrarian, never read the book but that opening is brilliant. Thanks for sharing.

  8. j-a brock said,

    i like books that start with action. this links with what you’re saying about descriptions of setting not being partiularly engaging at the start of the book. i like to learn about setting through quick observations while the actions of the characters are holding my attention.

    the other thing that works for me is starting with dialogue. if dialogue is opening a book, i’m immediately interested in and learning about who these characters are. it’s usually going to be a scene of some kind of action as well, so i guess it links to the above.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I like dialogue at the start of the story as longas it doesn’t go on too long. Two people you don’t know talking can lose interest quick if the dialogue isn’t broken up with either action or description.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  9. Margot Kinberg said,

    Cassandra – I’m glad you focused attention on how important a good first impression is. Many readers decide within the first few pages whether they’re going to continue with a book or throw it aside. I agree that one way to keep readers turning pages is to introduce characters who are involved and doing something; dialogue helps this, in my opinion. It also helps when one finds out a little about the characters, so that they’re human, too. This is important for writers to think about, so thanks : ).

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Thanks for the comment.
      Dialogue keeps coming up as a way to connect to the characters at the beginning of the story.

  10. ideagirlconsulting said,

    In my efforts to research best sellers, I’ve purchased 15 books.

    One book was a total turn off, in the first two paragraphs there were nothing but sentence fragments?

    It was published back in the 80’s, maybe back then it wasn’t such a big deal? LOL

    And not one of them amuses me, except one.

    Sophie Kinsella’s – Confessions of a Shopaholic.

    I could relate to shopping but the fascinating thing about the book was all the name dropping for fashion designers. It gave me the idea to add “fashion” on my to do list for my daily blogging.

    http://theideagirlsays.wordpress.com

  11. twaddleoranything said,

    I completely agree with your exploration of what makes us pick up a book and keep reading it. Even the simplest of cover design choices can utterly turn off a potential reader, which is perhaps a bit unfair as many authors have no say in the covers of their own books–but that’s the human mind for you.

    Personally, I love when an opening refuses to condescend to me–that is, when it refers to people and events without launching into explanations of them, as if I should already know what’s going on. Since of course I don’t, I’m encouraged to keep reading so that I can get myself up to speed. Genre authors like Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark often do this to thrilling effect, and although I wouldn’t list books of theirs as my favorite pieces of literature, they are certainly page-turners!

  12. In Medias Res « Far better write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all. said,

    […] not hooked by my beginning, how could I ever expect a reader to be? (Cassandra Jade has a great post about how first impressions of books are […]

  13. Joanna (rodmanstreet) said,

    I find that it’s the flow of the writing that often grabs me. If I’ve turned and continued onto the second page without even realizing it, I know it’s going to be an enjoyable read.

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