My writer friend Ami at Muse Ink posted a link recently to a blog post that talked about how important the first 250 words of your novel are — basically, the first page. If you haven’t hooked your reader by the end of page one, this blogger warned, s/he will never turn that page. Thus, avoid the following pitfalls: don’t start with a character, alone, thinking. Don’t start with a passage describing nature or the weather. Don’t start with exposition. Don’t start with someone having a dream.
Is it true? I wondered. Do writers have to grab readers on the first page and plunge them in over their heads in plot and conflict if we hope to keep their attention?
The book I was reading today happened to be this year’s Giller Prize winner, Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, so I opened to the first page to see if it conformed to The Rules, and here’s what I read:
The night before things started to become unstuck, I actually spent a good hour taking stock of my general situation and concluded that, all things considered, I was in pretty good shape. I was approaching the age of fifty, a psychological threshold only slightly less daunting than death, and found myself not much changed from forty or even thirty. If anything, I was healthier. The last decade of the century, and of the milennium, was shaping up to be less stressful than the eighth — which had been defined by certain events in Central America — and the ninth, burdened as it was by scandals here at home.
Then, for fun, I picked up what I think is the greatest Canadian novel of all time, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. Here’s how it begins:
The river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction. This apparently impossible contradiction, made apparent and possible, still fascinated Morag, even after the years of river-watching.
These Canadian literary giants are smashing rules left and right. Both start with a character alone, thinking. MacIntyre gives us a couple of pages of the man’s interior thoughts, weaving in a good deal of exposition, before he gets a message saying the bishop wants to talk to him, thus nudging us gently into the narrative flow. Laurence gives us two solid paragraphs of nature description.
I wondered if these “rules” apply more to commercial than to literary fiction. Is one of the differences (and I know those differences are slippery and hard to define) that people pick up what they consider “literary” fiction with more patience, more willing to give a writer time to develop setting and character before immersing them in plot?
Hard to say. I went back to the original blog and read a follow-up post where the same blogger, having told us what not to do on Page One, now tells us what to do, and claims this works equally well for commercial and literary fiction. What you have to do on Page One, he says, is introduce a disturbance to your main character’s life. Shake him or her up a bit.
I looked back at my examples. The Bishop’s Man has a slow start, no doubt about it, but the very first sentence introduces this introspection by saying, “The night before things started to become unstuck….” So we know, going in, that things will become unstuck, and that this will begin to happen on a specific day. The shake-up is subtle, but it’s there. As for The Diviners, yes, we get two paragraphs on the river, but at the end of the second (short) paragraph we find that Morag is looking at the river “trying to avoid thought” unsuccessfully. In the third paragraph, well before that first page ends, we know what Morag is trying to avoid thinking about — her teenage daughter has left home, leaving only a terse note.
So perhaps there is more room for subtlety in these “rules” than might first appear, and perhaps the requirement to grab your reader on the first page does apply as much to literary as to commercial fiction. It’s a very real concern for me right now, as I am playing around with opening chapters for two new novels, and trying to shop around an existing MS on the strength of a query and (if I’m lucky) a few sample pages.
I suspect these rules, if they have any validity at all, are more about how to capture the attention of an agent or publisher than a reader, but the blogs and surrounding discussion did make me think about how I start, and whether I am “hooking” readers from the beginning.
So, for your viewing pleasure, I present the opening passages (very brief; I won’t give you 250 words from each!) from my three works-in-progress. Which, if any, would you want to read further in? Why or why not?
1: Opening Sentence:
The longest journey of my life began with an argument about chips.
2. First Two Paragraphs:
“The thing you don’t know about me,” Trif Winsor says, “is I was one of a twin.”
She has said this, over the years, to many people. She has said it standing on the back bridge of the house, shaking out mats in a brisk northeast breeze. She has said it in the dark, turning to a face half-seen beside her in the bed. She has said it so often that it is, in fact, a thing almost everyone knows about her, part of the story of Trif Winsor. But another part of the story is her illusion that she is sharing a secret, letting you into a confidence. So she says it this way, with lowered voice, with a sideways glance to make sure there are no eavesdroppers.
3. Opening sentences:
This is the worst thing I know about myself, my darkest confession. When I heard Jesus was missing, I thought he was dead.
And I was not sorry.
4. Oh heck, just for fun, I’ll throw in another opening paragraph. The biggest problem with this one is that it proves you can write a grabby opening and still have trouble crafting a book to go with it.
I expected a lot of things when I woke up on Monday morning. I expected a department meeting, a few hours editing my thesis, and a visit to the dentist.
I didn’t expect a monk in my bedroom.
So, folks, what do you think? How much responsibility does a writer have to “grab” readers and drag them into the story right away? And what’s the best way of doing so — if there even is one best way? Writers and readers alike, tell me what you think!