Or, The importance of knowing where a story’s going to reading the first pages.
An awful lot of writing and publishing advice harps on the importance of the first few pages. The numbers vary–the first five pages, the first chapter, the first three chapters, the first twenty percent–but the message is the same: make those first few pages pop. Make them big and bold and bright. Make them so blow-your-socks-off awesome that readers simply cannot look away.
I think this would be better advice if no one ever knew what the rest of the story was when they read the first few pages. However, I am uncomfortable with the idea of always making your opening fast and furious simply to capture the attention of our ADD-addled cultural imagination. I am also uncomfortable with the idea of working your opening 10 times harder than you work the rest of your manuscript, because what happens if that 15-30% sample is polished and awesome, and then the second half is…not? Kind of feels like defrauding readers, doesn’t it?
But I want to go back to the first point, because that is really what got me stewing on this topic for a post. How many of the great books across our literary culture don’t start with a bang? The first Harry Potter was slow, nothing but ungrounded backstory for the series. Both The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring have extensive openings that lay groundwork about hobbits but are prime examples of all tell and no action. What about the now-iconic openings of A Tale of Two Cities or Pride and Prejudice? If you’re scanning ATOTC in the bookstore, do you even get past the twenty-contrast opening paragraph before getting bored and looking for something that blasts straight into action, if you know nothing about the story to come? Yet that is one of the most famous passages of English literature.
With all of these books, the hook is not the first line. The hook is the story. “Miserable orphan discovers he has a secret magical heritage and gets whisked off to a school for wizards.” Um, yes, I’m reading that. “Retiring hobbit is pulled from his comfortably bucolic life to go steal dragon treasure.” I’m in. “Edmond Dantes is wrongfully imprisoned for 13 years and comes back to take revenge on the men who ruined his life.” OMG yes.
The hook is not always the first line. Sometimes the first line is irrelevant if your reader knows the story that is to come. The reader has to find the first line readable, but they don’t have to find in it a hook for immediate action. Not if they have some idea where you’re going. Once they do, I think, readers are much more forgiving of letting a writer get there in their own way.
I just feel like the advice to start your book in the midst of action assumes no one reads back cover (or, for ebooks, “back cover”)–that no one reads the opening page or two with any notion of what the story is about. I think that’s wrong, though. When I pick up a book, I read the description, and only if the story sounds interesting do I turn to the first chapter to see if I like the way it’s written. I am not evaluating the opening for whether it jumps straight into something but rather do I like the way it’s written and will the narrative voice engage me enough to get me to the parts of the story that sounded interesting on the back?
And the truth is, I like slow openings. I have friends who like slow openings. I don’t mind a narrative style that exposits a fair amount in the beginning so that when the story happens, it can simply happen. For the record I also enjoy stories that jump right into the goods, where the backstory is spliced in between narrative sections as vignettes from the past or where the backstory is integrated into the moments of the narrative when it becomes necessary. I’m not saying every story should have a slow opening.
But the flip side is, not every story needs to have a wow factor opening, either. And that is coming from someone with ADD who actually can’t focus on much of anything, book or new television series or movie, without some idea of what it is and where it’s going.
Let’s apply this standard to movies. Some of my favorite movies are films that open slow and build to an immolation by the end. Drive is a really great recent example of this. Some of the movies that try to open big end up being a disappointment, because they have such a wow factor to open that nothing they do after that can live up. Ultra-violet (which I saw at the height of my vampire fascination a few years back) is a prime example of a movie that blew its load in the first fifteen minutes and went downhill from there.
Why should books be any different? If you open big, you set big expectations, and you had better be sure you can live up to them.
My thought on openings is that they should be as polished as the rest of your story–whatever that level of polish is, which in my opinion should be high–and that they should be the most appropriate opening for your story. Some stories work to start with a bonfire. Others need to start with a spark. You can end with burning the barn down both ways…but the process of getting there and the mood that final conflagration leaves in the mind of the reader will be completely different.
Maybe I’m just misunderstanding the advice about opening pages, though? Am I standing in an echo chamber of people who like slow openings when I say that I know an anecdotal-statistically significant number of people who do? What think all of y’all?