Grabbed by the throat or gently teased?

I’ve been thinking about the generally accepted premise that you need to grab readers in the first few lines of a story. I think for short fiction this is certainly true. You’re usually trying to get noticed in a slush pile several feet deep and an editor needs to be interested right from the outset. You need to convince that editor that in your 5,000 words or so you’re going to tell a clever, interesting and engaging story. There’s very little room for leisure in the opening paragraphs of short fiction. But is it also true of novels?

As writers we’re constantly told to make sure the opening pages of our novels are attention-grabbing. You need to get right into the action immediately, grab the reader and drag them along. Don’t give an editor chance to pass up your book on the grounds that it’s a slow starter. And so on.

But I wonder if that’s true. If you’re writing a stright up thriller, you expect some action right away. Bond films usually open with some crazy chase and action scene, for example, that’s often nothing to do with the actual film. After another example of Bond’s heroism and derring do, we’re treated to a longer, slower exposition of the film we’re actually here to see. The opening sequence is just re-establishing what Bond is all about.

In a thriller novel you’d expect much the same thing, in some form or another. In a mystery you’d expect a crime of some kind very early on to establish the credentials of the book and its protagonist. There are some styles that do evoke the need for a cracking opening and a fast pace. But is that always the case?

People often talk about things like Tolkien and Dickens and how they’d never get published these days as they’re too slow and verbose. No editor would take a chance on them. Is that true? If you’re reading something that you know is a long and complicated tale, would you really expect a tyre-screeching opening that leaves you breathless?

Let’s take an example. China Mieville is a poster-boy for success in speculative fiction right now. He just won the Hugo for his novel The City & The City (shared with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl). I recently read his massive book Perdido Street Station. I reviewed it here.

This book opens with a kind of prologue that is over three pages of first person narrative of a stranger arriving in a weird and interesting town, New Crobuzon. There’s no action, no calamity, just pure exposition. A deliberate setting of the scene, taking the reader along with the narrator into the city where this story will be told.

Next we get the first proper chapter and it’s more exposition of the city. Mieville is painting for us, with words to emulate the sights, sounds and smells of New Crobuzon so you can feel its grime on your skin. He wants the reader deep in the environment. He introduces characters and lifestyles. There’s eight pages of this opening chapter and again, no action or massive event. No obvious hook beyond the desire to learn more about this amazing place we’re experiencing. Chapter 2 is more of the same, more description, exposition. It’s beautiful writing, it’s incredibly evocative in creating a sense of place, but there’s no action or intrigue to speak of until many, many pages in when Lin gets approached with a commission and Isaac is approached by a troubled garuda, our first person narrator from the opening prologue sequence.

This book is a perfect example of the kind of thing that many people tell you won’t get published these days. Yet Mieville is hot property right now and winning more awards than he carry. That’s mainly because he’s an awesome writer. He also arrogantly ignores that old chestnut the “adverb rule”. To brilliant effect. It’s an example of good writing and good ideas drawing the reader in, regardless of “rules”. It doesn’t always take some mind-blowing event to ensure the start of a book holds the reader. How to get that more measured and relaxed opening past an editor, however, is a different matter. Perhaps it’s something that comes slowly as a writer’s craft develops and that writer’s work entrances readers regardless of the subject or pace of the story. Good writing and an interesting premise will win out.

I’m always prepared to read on and discover a story slowly, especially in something that I know is long and will require a lot of my time. It doesn’t need to grab me by the throat right from the start. I’m happy to be gently teased with interesting ideas and situations slowly developing if I feel like my investment will be rewarded with some quality storytelling.

I’m mainly thinking about these things at the moment as I’m trying to make the opening of my current work in progress a balance of interesting conflict and slow introduction, building to a more intense pace through the story. So I’ve started thinking about what makes the start of a book good enough to keep people reading.

What about you? Do you prefer a ball-tearing opening or are you open to slow, meandering starts? What keeps you reading past the first few paragraphs and what makes you put the book down and look for something else?

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12 thoughts on “Grabbed by the throat or gently teased?

  1. “mainly because he’s an awesome writer” tends to hit the nail on the head in regards to Mieville. He seems to get away with much more because of this.

    His introductions to novels all are quite similar, with the focus on setting and all that, but I think the hook rule still applies for him, it’s just a different kind of hook, not necessarily one based on action.

    Me, I love to write something shocking right at the start to throw my reader in the deep end.

  2. I think there’s a delicate balance, I prefer a fairly gripping start but as I’ve read, being too gripping can create false impressions and make it harder to make you care about the characters down the line. Ultimately it depends on how the writer pulls it off and maybe even more importantly the context of the reading. If I’ve bought a book it’s probably because I’ve heard it was good in which case I’ll give it a go regardless of how well the very first part sits with me.

  3. Benjamin – A different kind of hook is right. As someone on my LJ commented, it’s about making the reader care enough to carry on.

    Michael – What about when you’re just browsing for a new book, or do you only buy on recommendation?

  4. With a TBR pile threatening to sink a small island… yes, opening paragraph is vital to me. In fact, I once had a good blurb (also important) and a GREAT first chapter take me through 90% of the book before I realised that after the first chapter the entire book was drivel.
    I think a great first line/paragraph sets up a level of anticipation for the goodness to come; a bad opening makes me more critical and more cautious in my reading. Still redeemable, but the plot has to work harder. Even more so if it’s a new (to me) author – and old, established favourite author gets a lot more leeway (assuming that this isn’t the final straw in a bad run).

  5. But what makes a good opening para for you? Does it have to be action or calamity or can a beautifully phrased description capture you to read on?

  6. By now I largely buy on recommendation because I have an entire unread shelf — but if it’s on sight I’m more likely to pay attention to the blurb than the opening bit.

  7. I’m a lot like that myself, so I think I give books a much longer chance than others. I wonder how many editors share that view, though. Given that books like Perdido Street Station exist, there’s a case for editors that are happy for a slow burn too, assuming the writing quality and basic premise keeps them reading.

  8. At the moment, my ideal opening paragraph is a little cheeky – something ‘daaarrrling’, with violence. So dramatic, but understated.
    Hows that for completely NOT helpful? Something that creates an instant bond with the character
    “Digging graves is hell on a manicure, but I was taught good vampires clean up after every meal” – had me sniggering for several chapters. “Eli Monpress was trying to wake up a door” – so bizare you have to keep reading. Within the first page I want wit, charm, mystery and blood or death (but just a little, I’m a romance reader after all)

  9. Either way.

    Given that it’s rare for me to be totally absorbed into any book these days, thanks to many long, tedious hours editing the bastards, I have one simple requirement: good story.

    I love Le Carre’s long, drawn-out stories. Dickens is my most favourite author ever. But these works are so rich, so beautifully written, so wonderfully ‘storied’ that how long it takes doesn’t matter. The prose runs like rivers of gold.

    Most common modern works, by contrast, fail dramatically. Stories are brash, characters are shallow, cliches are rampant, and errors are ASTONISHINGLY COMMON.

    One sign of a punctuation error, and I can ignore it. Twice and I’ll still forgive. Three times and I put the book down.

    First pages are important, yes. I’ll be gently teased until the end of time, however, if it a story with a mundane beginning is beautifully written.

    Sorry, I went on a bit. Did that answer your question? 😀

  10. Alison – great examples, thanks.

    Leticia – Three typos and you chuck the book? Man, you must rarely ever finish anything!

  11. No, no – not typos, persistent errors where the author and/or publisher ought to know better. It just ruins the experience for me, and I literally can’t bear it. 😛

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