The Two Minute Rule

JT Ellison

Watching the Preakness Stakes last
weekend, I was nauseated and on the verge of tears when the phenomenal colt,
Barbaro, pulled up lame at the start of the race, his right rear ankle swinging in
grotesque circles. I know I wasn’t alone; the country has been
following the story of this magnificent animal – broken, battered, with an
injury that would be the end of a lesser horse. After many hours of surgery,
and many dollars, Barbaro, the horse they should rename Braveheart, seems to be on the mend. A wonderful ending to a
bitter story.

Later that day, Hubby and I were in the car, listening to a
sports talk radio program. Barbaro, and horse racing in general, was the topic of
conversation. The hosts were deriding the age old claim that the Kentucky Derby
is “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports.” They questioned how a horse
race could be more exciting that a two-minute drill in the Superbowl, or the last two
minutes of a hockey game, when goalies are pulled to improve the team’s
chance of scoring, and the already frenetic pace becomes almost chaotic.

I think they missed the point. Horse racing is billed that
way appropriately, simply because the entire event takes place in two minutes.
You wait around all day, partying, betting, letting the anticipation build and
build and build, then suddenly they’re off, and the entire day comes to a
climax in two short minutes.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Simple. I
was thinking about how men approach their sports, that the final two minutes
are the most important and exciting because it completely captures their interest.
I realized that I approach reading the same way. If you don’t capture my
attention within the first two minutes, you’re sunk.

Now, I’m a fast reader, and I can get 10-15 pages into a
book in two minutes. And if you haven’t shown me something by then, I’m going
to be a little cranky.

Last week, one of the lists I participate in had a
discussion about where to have the first murder. Does it have to be on the
first page, the first chapter, within the first fifty pages? Would it be okay
to build the characters, or romance, or whatever, before your murder appears?

my humble opinion, no. That’s not okay. You have two minutes to get the attention
of your reader. Only a very few exceptionally talented writers can write a
mystery in which the murder doesn’t take place until later in the book. And
even if you’ve got the talent of, say, Laura Lippman, it’s hard to do. You’re stretching your reader’s
faith when you don’t give them a reason to continue reading.

I think this rule applies to all genres, but especially
to mystery. How many books have you picked up, read the first couple of pages and
gone, hmmm, I forgot to put the clothes in the dryer. You do a few chores, come
back to it, read a couple of pages and realize you really would like a
Starbuck’s. I have read so many books like this, and it drives me crazy.
Without realizing it, I’m finding other, mundane things to do instead of
buckling down and reading. For shame. I want to be so engaged I have to drag
myself away to feed Hubby, not decide that cleaning the bathroom is a better
option than finishing out a chapter.

How do you capture the interest of your readers in two short
minutes? With a sharp, strong voice, an
engaging style, and starting the action and story immediately,
rather than spending a chapter describing your character’s morning or looks.

I try to do this with my own books. I either start with a body being found, or a murder being committed. It’s a great way to kick start your story, set the tone, and assure your readers that you aren’t going to waste their time making them wonder what this book is going to be about.

I decided to go back and see which writers I think really do
this well. John Connolly begins his debut novel – EVERY DEAD THING, with a
flashback to the protagonist’s literal nightmare, the horrific murder of his
wife and daughter. Compelling and gripping, he uses the crime scene reports to
fill in the details. This spare style resonates, drawing the reader into the
story almost against their will. It’s brilliant. And shoot, I just lost fifteen
minutes because he sucks me in, time and again.

John Sandford often starts his novels with
the killer’s point of view. Duane Swierczynski opens THE WHEELMAN with a bank robbery going
awry. The first line of the prologue in Tami Hoag’s NIGHT SINS is “They found the
body today.” P.J. Parrish begins A KILLING RAIN with an anonymous man driving
Alligator Alley to deliver a package. The tone of the story is unmistakable;
you know right away that he’s up to no good. And don’t even get me started on how well Cornelia Read opens her debut, A FIELD OF DARKNESS. Just go out and get it. I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s better to learn by example from the masters.

Wham, Bam, Thank you, Ma’am. All of these great books have
one thing in common. They grab your attention immediately. Don’t worry so much
about where you drop the body. Worry about engaging your reader with an
appropriately dramatic opening. If you can capture your reader’s attention
within the first two minutes, you’ll always be better off in the long run.

Wine of the Week – From Chile – Casa Lapostolle Cabernet
(the Merlot is fantastic too!)

P.S.  Don’t forget to root for Danica Patrick at the Indianapolis 500 this weekend! You go, girl!

37 thoughts on “The Two Minute Rule

  1. Sandra Ruttan

    One of my favourite openings:

    There is no feeling in the world more hopeless, more desperate, more frightening, than when you are standing at the end of a gun that’s held steadily and calmly by someone you know is going to kill you. And impotent, too. It’s an impotent feeling, realizing that nothing you do or say, no pleading, no begging, nothing, is going to change the dead angle of that weapon, or prevent the bullet from leaving it and entering your body, ripping up your insides, and ending every experience, every thought, every dream you’ve ever had…

    I’m very weak at beginnings. Good post, JT. And I hate your ability to read so fast!

  2. Neil Nyren

    You’re exactly right, JT. It’s the same on our side of the fence as editors. If a manuscript doesn’t grab us very quickly, we’re just going to put it aside. I need to see the story and the voice from the very first page, to feel that I’m in the hands of someone who knows what he or she is doing. Otherwise…why am I bothering?

  3. Iden Ford

    JT, Great Post! . . . ahem, being a Canadian here, I have thoughts on a few things you wrote. I quote:” . . . . . or the last two minutes of a tied hockey game, when goalies are pulled to improve the team’s chance of scoring”Never happens that way. If one team is down by a goal or more, they often pull the goalie in a wild attempt to tie the game, but never would a team pull their goalie if the game was tied. Just thought I’d clear that up.Second, being a man, I have thoughts on another comment, you wrote: . . . . “how men approach their sports, that the final two minutes are the most important and exciting because it completely captures their interest”Doesn’t sound like we are talking sports here eh? I mean the climax, or end result is just not the whole picture for certain events, it’s like saying the final out in the World Series is what we guys are waiting for. Not true, when you are a student of any sport, the whole thing is wonderful, not just the final two minutes.Lastly, Lawrence Block, in one of his wonderful “how to books”, claims that new writers should always start off their novels with some type of action to grab the readers attention. He compares this to watching a good cop show, or thriller, on film or TV. Part of the success of certain entertainment is how quickly you grab the reader of viewer in the first 10 pages. So he suggests copying the idea that scriptwriters use. Active beginnings.Thanks

  4. Cornelia Read

    JT, you are VERY kind to mention FIELD, especially in such august authorial company, and I’m sitting here blushing profusely.

    The funny thing (to me) about the book’s opening is that it has nothing to do with the story, or the murders. But the house on the next street really DID go up in flames two nights in a row one summer, when we lived in Syracuse, and it is still *always* the first thing I think of when I flash on having lived in that city for three years.

    That and the crappy Chinese food….

    Thanks again, I am honored to be mentioned in your post!

  5. Jason Pinter

    Great post JT. It’s something I’m working on in my book as I go over my editor’s comments. Since my book is more of a thriller than mystery there’s no body to find. Yet.

    So I wanted a sense of dread to build, but knew I couldn’t go too long without that BAM happening (your royalty check is in the mail, Mr. Lagasse).

    So I’m actually opening my novel with a flashFORWARD to a scene that happens near the end. I want the reader to say, “How the hell did this guy end up here?”

    I think it works, but that’s obviously for the reader to decide.

  6. JT Ellison

    Iden, you’re so right, and in deference, I’ve taken the word tied out of that sentence. That was my mistake, and I should have my Predators tickets taken from me and burned for missing that one.

  7. Sandra Ruttan

    Duh. Should have mentioned that opening was from The Murder Exchange by Simon Kernick.

    And as a Canadian, I was obviously lacking in discussing the finer points of pulling goalies in hockey games as well.

    Shame on me.

    And Cornelia, your opening does a good job at establishing a certain level of tension, atmosphere, the dynamics at play. I don’t think you always need to drop a body right off – your book is proof that you can go about it differently and be very effective.

  8. JT Ellison

    Mr. Nyren, good to see you. As always, it’s great to have your opinion.I’d love to hear from more editors, writers and agents — what makes you discount a manuscript immediately?Jason, you’ve already nailed that one. I love the idea of starting with the ending.Cornelia, you’ve welcome for both the mention and the joke. Both are absolutely accurate;)And Sandra, didn’t that opening win an award? Was it one of yours?

  9. Naomi

    I like the flashforward technique–I think Donna Tartt used it in SECRET HISTORY. I personally don’t usually insert a murder in the first few pages. Perhaps it’s because of the type of novels I write–I call them cultural mysteries and they certainly fall in the category of amateur sleuth.

    I’m more interested in character development and letting the character pull the reader through the plot. What’s mentioned here, in addition to plot devices, is voice. I think that the plot can be somewhat formulaic, but the voice cannot.

    That said, you still need those killer first pages (first paragraph, even). Conflict, conflict, conflict–whether it’s the physical, emotional or intellectual kind.

    And yes, Barbaro. I missed the race on TV, but saw the photo of the horse a day later in the newspaper. Tears did come to my eyes!

  10. Sandra Ruttan

    Award? The opening I posted was Simon Kernick’s – don’t know if it won an award. Certainly worthy of one in my book.

    As for me, I placed for the first 3000 words of SC, and won an award for the whole manuscript, is that what you’re referring to? But even then, my beginning is weaker than the end.

    Just ask the person who critiqued me this week!

  11. Brett Battles

    Wait. I think we’re all missing the main point in this post…10 to 15 pages in 2 minutes???

    I hate you. In a good way.

    Great post, J.T. Jason, on the flash forward thing. I’m a fan of it to. J.J. Abrams often uses it on his TV shows, specially Alias, but also on a couple episodes of Lost. It’s a great device. On the book front, Steven Hockensmith does something similar in his hilarious “Holmes on the Range.” It’s definitely that keeps you reading on so you can find out what could have gotten the characters into the situation.

  12. Elaine

    Two minutes to get the attention of a reader? I think if you’re talking about standalones, or debut books, then I would agree-a murder needs to be upfront. If you’re talking about established series featuring a cop, a P.I. or a lawyer-then its a given that body is gonna show up soon enough. That’s not always easy, however, when your protag is an accidental sleuth. He or she can’t always be tripping over dead bodies in the first chapter. My first and second book had to use that formula, but in the third-I slowed it down. Readers who follow a series protag KNOW he or she is going to end up solving a homicide. And like Naomi said-it’s time now for our protags to expand character development and hope to hell the reader enjoys the opportunity to see new depth-and then ride along to solve the dastardly crime. Sure, conflict and hints of what’s to come should always be established in the first chapter. I’m bored as well when I open a book and find the first chapter is filled with a mundane report of the protags day, or which series of streets he/she drove to get to his/her therapist, AA meeting, looking in a mirror and wondering how the hell his/her life has taken such a turn, lines of imagery and a setting that has nothing to do with what’s to come. Just a few months ago I was a judge for an award for Best First Novel, and let me tell you – there were many books that began this way. I gave each author plenty of time to entice me, but you can guess how far I read.

  13. David J. Montgomery

    A book doesn’t have to begin with action (although that can often be very effective), but it has to begin with something that’s going to grab the reader’s attention.

    It’s difficult to do in a way that hasn’t already been done a thousand times before, but it’s crucial that an author crafts something enticing to open with. Otherwise, the reader is going to put the book back down and move on.

    I’m surprised at how many books do have flat, dull or cliched openings. I usually just toss them when they do. My reasoning is: if the beginning stinks, how likely is it that the rest of the book is any good?

  14. Naomi

    [protag] looking in the mirror . . .

    That’s probably one of the worst ways to start off a book.

    Unless what looks back at you is something otherworldly.

  15. JT Ellison

    This is a great discussion, guys. If we all wrote the same and thought the same, books would be very boring.I agree with you, Elaine and Naomi, that more established authors can get away with waiting to drop the body, but I still need something very compelling to keep my interest. I read a book by an “established author” who didn’t have a murder until the very end, and it didn’t turn my crank. That’s just me. You know, tomato — tomahto.As Connolly so aptly put it, we writers are like magpies, easily distracted by shiny objects.

  16. Pari

    I like this discussion, J.T et al. But . . . I think you can also grab a reader with a protag with a unique, a fresh voice.

    Am at Mayhem this weekend. Having a great time so far.


  17. JLW

    Sometimes you need action. More often, what you need is a killer line:

    “It is a fact universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Austen)

    “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” (D. du Maurier)

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (Dickens)

    “Call me Ishmael.” (Melville)

    “The first time I saw Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.” (Chandler)

    “My last day as a hopeless junior-high-school worm was marked by merde.” (Lochte)

    Who needs action?

  18. Elaine

    Leave it to JLW to bust our bubble! But I agree as well. My favorite all time first line came from Shirley Conran’s ‘Lace’. She opened with:

    “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”

    I mean, is that scintilating, or what? Can’t you just wait for the fur to fly?

  19. JT Ellison

    Put that in contemporary terms — Do you think if Dickens were to start a query letter with this opening, an agent would read past the first line? Will an agent or editor take a chance on a new writer who doesn’t have something to start that is either brilliantly worded, or explosive in nature?Depressing, yes. But it’s reality. I see so many new writers trying to get noticed who don’t show this level of brilliance, or have something that grabs the readers attention. How else are they going to get a foot in the door?

  20. JLW

    There’s no such thing as a generic agent, so customizing your writing as if there were is simply foolish.

    Here’s one of my own first paragraphs:

    “It was prudence, he told himself, not premonition, that spurred Charles Treviscoe to prepare for death. Prudence was proof of courage, while a morbid presentiment could only be craven. Fortissimus ille est, qui promptus metuanda pati, si comminus instent, et differe potest, said Lucan: he is bravest who prepares to cope with present dangers, and awaits a better time; and Sallust said: eis maximum est perculum qui maxume timent, audacio pro mura habetur, the most fearful are the most endangered, but courage protects as a wall. Nevertheless, Treviscoe felt his blood churn like a great hurricano. His heart would not be stilled.”

    Not up to Dickens, perhaps, but I did snag an agent at a major New York agency with it.

  21. Rob Gregory Browne

    I like to open with a long paragraph about the weather, then a nice long description of my hero as he gets out of bed and starts his day.

    Okay, I’m kidding. I’m sure there are people who can get away with that kind of thing, but I’m not one of them.

    I don’t write mysteries. Well, I’m sort of writing one now — although it leans more toward thriller — but I think the trick to opening any story is to intice your reader with a mystery, even if it’s as simple as “what’s this guy up to?”

    Starting with a character in motion can often do that. A character in the middle of doing something that compels us to wonder who he is and where he’s headed.

    So I don’t think it’s strictly necessary to start with a body. But if you don’t, you’d better be damn interesting till you get to one.

  22. Jason Pinter

    I agree with Rob, it doesn’t HAVE to happen, but you need to do something to keep the reader’s interest while building to it. Either through atmospheric settings, enjoyable characters, good foreshadowing, or flat-out terrific writing.

    I think building characters early is so important in a series. I want readers to have an emotional stake in my characters, to genuinely feel for them and sweat bullets with them, not just hope they find the bad guy because he did something bad and evil must triumph and yada yada yada.

    And don’t you wish blogs had spell check???

  23. Elaine

    And I agree with both Rob and Jason. Not just about spell check either. Foreshadowing is an essential many new writers seem to think as cheating-and consider it as the old fashioned red herrings. It ain’t. Deftly sprinkled through, and yes-even in the beginning – makes – I think – a richer story. And more important, it allows the reader one of the greatest joys of ‘Aha!Damn, I should have caoutht that!’

  24. JLW

    Spell check is only useful for detecting typos. It does not teach anybody how to spell. If you want to be a physicist, your arithmetic should be pretty good. If you want to be a writer, your spelling should be pretty good, too, unless you’re dyslexic like Steve Cannell and have a good reason for not being able to spell.

    Grammar and style check programs are completely, utterly, absolutely useless, and anybody who relies on them should immediately be returned to the ecosystem for recycling. Many otherwise useful amino acids are thus wasted. Better they should be used by worms and insects than advanced chordates with no judgment.

    Finally, re: “I see so many new writers trying to get noticed who don’t show this level of brilliance, or have something that grabs the readers attention. How else are they going to get a foot in the door?”

    Who cares?

    If they’re not brilliant, why should I want to read them?

    Let them write journals.

  25. JT Ellison

    Rob and Jason, y’all are absolutely right on the money! We all have our likes and dislikes. Me, I prefer to be grabbed by the throat and thrown around the room, rather than puzzling things out. But that’s just me:) Diversity makes the world go ’round.

  26. Rob Gregory Browne

    Spell check has saved me a number of times. I can generally spell, but there are words here and there — like entice — that I screw up on. I know I’ve spelled these words wrong usually about a minute after it’s too late. So the spellcheck comments are made to save face, since blogging is such a public thing.

    But the spell check lines are also a writer’s trick. A HOOK. They get you to go back and read the post again, seeing if you can spot the mistakes that you may have missed the first time. Clever, eh? 🙂

    Grammar check, however, is about as infuriating as a copy editor on a mission.

  27. Allison Brennan

    GREAT post JT! I completely agree. I did a blog about this last month at MurderSheWrites . . . hooks. Sol Stein said he did an experiment at a bookstore and readers give authors (especially new-to-them authors) 3 pages before buying the book or putting it back on the shelf. That’s about 4-5 manuscript pages. That’s it.

    In THE KILL I started with a prologue because the opening chapter wasn’t as tense (no dead body). But the prologue was about an abduction and set the tone, then the lead-in sentence of Chapter One made the connection between the prologue and the story.

    You need something to draw in the reader. While it doesn’t have to be a dead body, in a suspense or mystery you have to immediately open up questions, engage the reader’s curiosity. Give one answer only to open up two questions. A dead body is obviously the easiest and most effective way to do it. In my WIP I have a dead body by page 8, but I’m hoping that leading up to it I’ve set the scene and built tension.

    Oh and Jason, I love reading books that start at the end, then build back up to it. It can be very effective.


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