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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