Literary agent Noah Lukeman wrote a book more than a decade ago called THE FIRST FIVE PAGES about the importance of openings. I’ve heard many editors and agents state that they know whether they’re going to reject something within the first five to ten pages–even one posted on a blog somewhere that in three pages she knew. In one of his books on writing, Sol Stein said he walked into a bookstore and watched browsers. Most who picked a book up off the shelf would read the inside flap/back cover copy, then turn to the first page. If they turned the page, they were more apt to buy the book. If they didn’t turn the page, they were more apt to put the book back on the shelf.
One page to hook the reader.
Before I started writing, I always finished books I started, even if they weren’t very good. I was practically compelled to do so–as if it would be sacrilegious to not finish the book. Now? Unless it’s an author I trust who has never let me down in the past, if I don’t like the story after a chapter or three, I don’t finish it. Life is too short to read books that don’t grab me. Apparently, I’m one of the more generous readers.
Some readers complain that in the effort to start in action, they’re thrown into a story completely lost. Other readers don’t like a long set-up. But what is a long set up for one reader is short for another.
Editors buy books, generally, because they love the author’s voice, they care about at least one character, and they have a sense of where the book fits. One editor told me there are two things that need to be in a manuscript before she would even considering buying it–character and pacing. And she knows if they are there before she’s done with the first chapter.
Agents and editors won’t read past the first few pages if they know they won’t buy, and readers won’t, either. Teasers–the sample chapters you can read online or download to e-readers–are more important for many readers than most of us realize, especially now when it is so easy to download a chapter, and then buy it if you like it–or not.
Some writers lament that “if only” the editor would read more, they’d understand the importance of starting the book in the slower spot, or in that character’s POV, or with five pages of description. But if readers who buy the book aren’t going to give them past the first page or two, why should the editor hope that there’s something more enticing later? I’d suspect if the voice is so strong and compelling that the editor will give it a longer read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they bought it, that the editor wouldn’t ask for a more compelling opening.
All this hit home to me (again) when I received the Romantic Suspense entries for RWA’s Golden Heart contest. I decided to read the first five pages of each story as if I were an editor acquiring the book, or an agent who wanted to sell it. While I read the entire entry and give it a fair score, because that’s my responsibility to the contest and entrants, after five pages, only one grabbed me enough that I wanted to read more. I marked where the author “lost me” — it was by the second page. Each one was for a different reason–poor writing, stereotypical character/opening, and one that–surprisingly–started with a great hook, but it was poorly executed. It dragged out something that didn’t need to be dragged out, so it felt forced and contrite.
If I were an editor, four of those would have been sent rejections already. The fifth, the one that grabbed me and I wanted to read past page five, I can picture an editor taking it home, hoping it fulfills her wishes.
Just like any reader.
I thought about this even more this past week as I was writing the third Lucy Kincaid book. I knew there was a problem with the beginning, but I didn’t know what, so I just continued writing, figuring I’d fix it later or my editor would figure it out. But that was me being lazy. At one point, it hit me, and I went back and rewrote the opening two chapters. I ended up in the same place so I could save the next three or four chapters (just some minor editing) but the first two chapters are completely different. Different POV, different set-up, but the same story. I’m much happier, and have written more in the last two days than I had in the last week–because subconsciously, I knew there was something wrong with the first five pages.
It’s scary being a writer today knowing that readers judge books on the opening page or two. But I don’t really blame them. We’re all busy. We have families and jobs and responsibilities, and when we read we want a book we know we’ll like. Maybe now, more than ever, because we don’t want to spend money on something that doesn’t entertain us, nor do we want to waste time. I’m guilty of the same thing. After putting myself in an editor’s shoes, I realize how easy it is to reject — but not as easy as it is for a reader.
This is extremely fascinating both from the POV of a writer and reader. It takes confidence to know you're going to write that first page that will make the reader turn it and buy the book. I'm also a character-driven reader, I remember the scene when we first see Jane through the eyes of Thomas Moore, and you know you just want to know more of this woman. Same dynamic with the series that I've followed over the years. Some readers I know say they give a book 50 pp, but with a mystery, people make up their minds rather quickly. Scary, yes, but isn't it also great to know that those first paragraphs is all it takes to grab readers and pull them into your universe?
Great post and i have to say, it's something I agree with completely. I used to always finish a book, it felt wrong not to but now, I'm with you, if I'm not grabbed by the first few pages, I don't finish the book. Is time a factor? I think so. But I also think that there are too many great books out there for me to spend time on one that doesn't really grip me.
As a new writer, I often uttered the phrase if only the agent kept reading but now I fully understand if the opening isn't gripping, no one, not even a devoted cp will keep reading. And it's up to me the writer to fix that, to make the story one that the reader, no matter who it is, will keep reading.
I have book sitting on my counter. It's been there for weeks. Loved it but never finished it. I feel like as soon as I move it back to the study, I'll never finish it. And that's sad for the book. But not for me. If I'm not moved to fnish it, thewhy waste the time?
Great post and one all writers should pay attention to!
A lot of food for thought in what you write.
When I'm browsing, it's the first sentence. If that's okay, I go to the first paragraph. If that's okay, I go to the second paragraph, then the third, fourth, etc. At any point after the first sentence, I'll put the book down if I feel like it's wasting my time. I can do that easily with an e-reader, where I can sample a boatload of books.
My kids' generation will be even less forgiving. They live and breathe infinite choice in reading, music, and all forms of entertainment. They're going to be much less forgiving with openings, looking for reasons to move onto the next thing.
I've long said the opening of a book is crucial. I think it was Mickey Spillane who said the beginning of the story sells the book and the ending sells the next book.
Makes sense to me.
I think it's the author's voice that makes it or breaks it in the first page(s) for me. If the author is known to me that is the first hook. Then I read the premise to see if it has things that interest me there such as historical setting, or a cold case, or what-have-you. Then I read some paragraphs, usually from the first chapter but sometimes the excerpt is from later in the book.
Just last week I was very interested in a debut historical mystery set in Victorian England, the protagonist ran a brothel, it was in first person and sounded good. I downloaded the sample to the Kindle and was so disappointed. The voice was so … flippant? Frivolous? It just struck me wrong and inappropriate for what I was expecting or wanting in a crime novel in that setting. The author is perfectly in her right to express the story the way she wanted but it didn't work for me. Another historical debut last month, I had bought the book and I got further into the story — it had a great concept and was going well for a few chapters in but the author kept shifting view points — to characters that were background and were poignant perhaps to the author — but lost the flow of the crime solving and protagonist. Again, the author wanted to tell that story but I lost interest and haven't finished it.
Conversely, when working on my newsletter a couple months back, the excerpt from a book was so engaging I put it on the list to check out even though the type of book, an amateur sleuth, isn't really my cuppa.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. We “pre-published” writers are held to a stricter code than those of you with a following. It is hammered into our brains that the first paragraph, no, sentence, no word, if possible, should – must – grab the reader. So we struggle with that paragraph. Then, lawdy, we have to do the same thing with the synopsis, the query. Lukeman’s book, of course, is correct, apparently not only for the mass of the pre-published, but also those writing second or third books.
I picked up Jodi Picoult’s House Rules – First sentence – “Everywhere I look, there are signs of a struggle.”
But then…. Her dialog tags are peppered with
Jacob says cheerfully
I tell her
Emma chokes out
….and I check my notes that tell me: My dialog should be so clear, so expressive, you don’t need to use descriptors.
Did I read the book? Of course, after all, it’s Jodi Picoult
And what grammarians are editors these days: more funny? more happy?
Thanks for the post.
Sigh. I understand it, too, but I've got to say I've started some pretty crappy books in the last couple of years because they pulled me in with a great hook on the first few pages, but then…got really, really bad. I would hope that agents and editors would recognize that a multi-layered book by a talented writer can always be tinkered with to pull the reader in more quickly. A bad book with a good opening hook is a lot harder to fix.
Of course, the problem is figuring out what a good hook is. I think I've written my first chapter eight different ways, now. Depending on which version, sometimes they stood alone as chapters, sometimes they were maybe half a chapter before going into what's now chapter two, because it's a story where everyone agrees to complete confusion if I just start at the first main event. Including the beta-er who listened to me explain what it was supposed to be…
The way I have it now should hook people, I hope, and immerse people in the world enough for later events to make sense as they are. But getting the right balance, of hook-the-reader and stay-with-the-story, is difficult. I know that I put down any book that starts with something engaging and then goes 'But that was later. It began when…' or any variation thereof. Why should I expect anyone else not to?
I admit, I am lured by a great title, a compelling cover, and a gorgeous first sentence/first page – but there have been SO many times when I bought books that met those three conditions but were extreme disappointments in the end.
The last 20 or so books I've bought have been on Kindle, and I love the free sample feature – I still read the first sentence, but I also look further in to see what's there.
It's also proven true for me many times that a book that started slowly, without "grabbing" me, ended up really knocking my socks off as I read on, so I know that often I have to be willing to commit to more than a few pages to discover the books that end up becoming long-time favorites.
I've always said if I were an agent or editor there is no way I could choose based on a pitch or the first x number of pages. I'm not saying I'd read every ms in full but I do think I'd want the whole thing so I could browse from beginning to end.
I also think from a writing perspective that when we write, we don't always know the beginning until we get to the end. And sometimes even the most brilliant writer gets to the end w/o being able to go back and fix the beginning – which can take time and distance away from that particular ms to see. To me, that's one job of a good editor – to be outside the work enough to see those kinds of structural things that aren't as obvious to someone who has lived inside the story for a long period of time.
Great post, Allison. Let me start off by saying….ugh, I hope you're not reading my GH entry. lol
I'm pretty forgiving as a reader also…I'll go several chapters. someimes even half a book, before I give up reading a story that doesn't grab me. I've set down many bestsellers/multi-published authors because, at the time of reading, I couldn't get into their story or characters. Although, I'll admit, sometimes it's more me than the author because I'm just not ready to be drawn into their world.
Usually I don't stress over the first chapter of a new work. I just write the story down then go back and edit (or edit as I write)….but my third novel stopped dead in it's tracks because, although I thought the opening was strong, others felt it wasn't strong enough. :-/
Great post. I love strong openings, but not SO strong that the rest of the story can't possibly hope to live up to that set-up – and, sadly, I've come across quite a few like that.
But I agree that it's usually the writer's voice that hooks me more than the story. There's something about the rhythm of the construction and the use of words that either clicks or doesn't. It took me several attempts to get past the slow backstory-loaded opening of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
For me, the start of the book is never the start of the story – it's where you choose to invite the reader to join you in the story. And determining that right jumping-in point can be one of the hardest bits of the job.
Super, super advice. Your opening is the key to a great read. Thanks for this, Allison!
I think the opening has to be strong. In screenwriting, you were lucky to get a whole page to hook the reader; five was nirvana. I learned to create strong opens to survive. I'm at the point where I can't really write the book if I don't have the right opening. I went through about twenty permutations for the book I just finished until the right one zinged, and only then could I continue writing it.
I'm pretty brutal in a book store, too. With the Kindle, I'm apt to read more because I've downloaded the free chapter and that's actually worked in the favor of several books that I probably would have put down in a book store and ended up buying on the Kindle because the excerpt worked and grew stronger as I went.
Super post! I have written, re-written, opening chapters with a zinger, a slow mood builder, a setting the scene, in hopes of pulling a reader into the story, So far, I'm still unpublished and struggling. I started my next manuscript with a different protagonist and different kind of opening and va-boom, I managed to thrill/chill myself. I'm hoping this is a sign that I'm finally on the right track. However, one thing I do know, I can't leave writing alone even though it drives me crazy. A heart aching, exhilirating, frustrating that sometimes explodes into a published novel. Oh well….back to the drawing board.
I just signed with an agent after months of tweaking…and my book goes out to publishers for review next week. I'm terrified! and those last few rounds were all about the first 50 pages, then the first 20, then the first 5.
I also totally get this because of the sample chapters thing– I got a Kindle for Christmas and I love being able to read the first couple chapters. Even fave authors, I've taken a pass on lately if their opening sample didn't grab me.
These are new times and peoples time and attention are valuable. I respect that, even though it's a tough challenge to meet as a unpublished author.
Thought-provoking post, Allison!
I've gotten like you and so many other readers these days who, through impatience and not wanting to waste time, will stop reading a book after just a few pages. What I can't fathom is what has gotten them published in the first place. There are times when I get frustrated and I want the creme de la creme, seeking out Steinbeck, for example, for the kind of word magic that I want to get under my own skin, not just as a writer but as a reader. When I'm preparing my book (ms) for publication, I want it to be the best it can be for maximum enjoyment for the reader. Giving out "samples" is an honest-to-goodness way to introduce your work and I'm glad you mentioned that. But, haven't publishing houses always promoted their books with excerpts in magazines? Now, we have our author websites and snippets in other venues.
There's a document floating around the film business called "First Three Pages" and it contains the first three pages of some of the best screenplays of all time. So, it holds true for film, too. And I agree that voice has a lot to do with it. I know when I can lean back and feel comfortable in a writer's hands, when I can trust the author or screenwriter or film director to know his craft well enough to take me on the ride. I know within the first three pages, really, or the opening scene of a film.
Whew! I left for soccer tryouts this morning and came back to a great discussion.
Rob, I think you said it best (or your quote said it best) — the beginning sells the book, the ending sells the next. So, so, so true.
And I should add that when I say STRONG BEGINNING I don't necessarily mean ACTION-PACKED beginning. I think a lot of beginning writers get it wrong because they think hook means action. hook means to draw in your reader so they don't want to put the book down. That can be done in many different ways. It can be the opening sentence. The imagery. The author's voice. The character herself. All of the above. Or it can be high-action. But action without character is meaningless, so to start with action the author had better integrate character.
I remember being totally dissed by contest judges for the opening sentence of my first book, THE PREY. I entered 3 or 4 RWA contests and inevitably someone gave me a low score because I opened with "author intrusion" — "Rowan Smith learned about Doreen Rodriguez's murder from the reporters camped out in her front yard Monday morning."
I didn't change the sentence because the next two pages is Rowan waking up. There are a lot of character clues in those two pages–about where she stores her gun, her shoes, how the smallest sound has her alert. We don't know a lot about her–what she does, who she is, or why reporters would go to her house about the murder of some woman. But without the hooky sentence, the two pages could have been dull. But I knew I wouldn't have long to draw out the information, so I made sure she answered the door and we got SOME answers that were introduced with the first sentence.
Which leads me to Jodi Picoult. Her writing is evocative and unique and very much HER VOICE. In that, we all have styles we use that contribute to your voice. Specific tags may be used because of the rhythm they lend to the scene. Dialogue by itself can be bland. Yes, it should be evocative and you should know whose talking, but at the same time straight dialogue even interspersed with action can seem too formal or distancing.
Again, it's style. I wouldn't say it's poor writing because I haven't read that book and I can't tell you. I use tags and often adverbs (gasp!) if I think it fits. I rarely use anything other than "said" though occasionally I'll use "whispered" "shouted" "questioned" "asked" or a similar tag.
Allison, any chance that you could return to this having read all the entries fully? I'd be interested to see if any of the other stories compelled you when completed.
What really interests me though, are the stories that don't grab the reader on the first pages, or even chapter. The ones that get published and take off. Consistantly I hear about the slow intro to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I am currently reading A Suitable Boy, which moves methodically through the narritive, weaving in layers of plot, conflict, inter-connectivity of characters.
What is it that these kinds of books have in common, that land them that coveted shelf space?
Great post, Allison. Interesting how many of us used to be of a mind to complete a novel once we started reading it, then woke up to the fact that life is too short to read those we stopped enjoying. I have to wonder if that was because early on, when we *knew* we wanted to write, we felt a need to read every word, because after all, a publisher published it, therefore it *must* be good. (Translated : This is what NY wants–this is what I need to learn.)
Now, if I can find a faster way to part with those books I stopped reading, I will have oh, so much more room on my shelves!
But I digress… You are so right about grabbing the reader in the first 5. I usually have about 20 versions of my opening by the time the entire novel is completed. It will often change as my plot develops. And even then, after it's done, sometimes my editor will recognize that I've still missed the mark, with her notation that "the story starts here," (several pages later.)
I go with Judy Greber's rule: you must read 50 pages unless you're over the age of 50, in which case you can deduct one page for every year.
This is why I generally don't write my opening chapter as any more than a basic "this is what probably happens or maybe not" set of impressions.
Then, long after I've written my first or second or third draft, I tackle the opening again. Unless I've had some kind of inspiration along the way and written the opening in a white heat, which does happen.
Once you know what your book really is (and that for me is after the first draft or two), then it's not anywhere near as hard to write a great opening.
But I have to say – as a reader, I am more likely to buy a book because of the overall storyline of the flap copy and a few random bits I've read in the middle of the book than the opening chapter. Too many authors try too hard with their first page and it's just icky and precious.
I used to depend on book reviews in magazines and newspapers for my book-buying decisions. That only worked for me about half the time. Browsing in bookstores was a lot better but not great, as I tended to be too swayed by displays and covers. Writer interviews on the radio were the least helpful to me, although I did discover two of my favorite authors on NPR. I've recently acquired the habit of checking author web sites, too– very helpful. I always go on line to read the free samples of the books I'm interested in. I usually know by the end of the first page, if I will buy it, and I usually buy it right then and there.
I'm sorry to say that there are no local bookstores close to me now, because in the smaller stores I have received outstanding help in selecting books! Sorry, I missed mentioning that above.
Alex, I'm totally with you on the beginning–I write the first 100-150 pages pretty fast, hit a wall, and go back to figure out what the story is. By the time I get through that first partial edit, I can *see* the book (I know we've talked about this before, Alex, my difficulties moving into the second act. It's all because I know my beginning isn't working.) So once I figure all that out, my opening is usually fine. Once I turn it into my editor, the first chapter or two stays with light edits–then I usually rework the rest of the first act again because my editor has all these good points. Sometimes that means reworking the whole book–sometimes it's just strengthening what's on the page. With the Lucy books, it meant strengthening–the endings stayed the same, which was great for me–fewer rewrites!
Debbie, I didn't want to get into specifics because I don't want RWA to slap me 🙂 but there's only one more entry in my stack that was well-written enough to have potential, even though I wasn't drawn in.
And to re-iterate — what *I* find compelling may not be what others find compelling. There are people who hate my books (can you believe it? — LOL) And people who love them. Ditto for every writer on the planet. That's why I believe we have to please ourselves first, stay true to our voice, write what we love, trust our editor, and hope the book finds its audience. And then try our hardest to make the next book better.
Robin — I always knew I wanted to be a published author, but I didn't take myself seriously for a long time. It was ironically after I started writing seriously that I stopped reading books I didn't like. I can even tell you the first book I never finished (not counting books I *skimmed* in high school and college!) — it was an Iris Johansen book. The only reason I'm naming her is because her book THE SEARCH is one of my ALL TIME FAVORITE books. I loved the story, loved the heroine, loved the hero. Then I read another of her books and HATED the heroine. Don't know why, specifically, but I could not get through it because she annoyed me to no end.
I think I read my books all the way through because I'm a fast reader and had a small library and didn't realize there were a gazillion books out in the world 🙂
I read Noah Lukeman's THE FIRST FIVE PAGES when I was trying to write my first book and it really put the pressure on. You're also right about agent's and voice. Voice was the reason my agent gave for taking me as a client.
I've been in the habit of reading the first paragraph of every book that comes within arm reach. It's funny. Of the hundred or so books I've tried this with over, say, the past year, I never found one single book I would buy or keep reading because of the first page or so. Not one. I don't think I'm hooked that easily. If I read a book, it is because I'm in the mood to read. It isn't the flair of the author. It's just me and what I feel like doing. And tastes between people are so different, what one hates, another loves. I think – writing shouldn't be made this hard. Learn the basics, then write. Forget the world. If you let every agent and publisher beat you over the head with their ideal agenda, where does that leave you? You disappear. I don't care to disappear so that someone else can rule the world. Heck, just write!
In general, I agree. Beginnings are very important. The problem is: what makes for a good opening for some does not make for a good opening for others. One thing I don't like about many thrillers as a reader are cheap tricks, like a mysterious assassination or gore or some such. Who cares? These instantly turn me off. I need strong character development immediately for me to stay tuned in. But I'm just one dude. If you spend all your time as a writer trying to make everyone happy, you will fail. Or least end up unhappy.
And, as Debbie points out, The Girl w/ the Dragon Tattoo violates the snappy beginning rule. I tend to agree, but obviously, a billion other people don't care. So who knows what turns people off or on?