Fashions change in writing as do readers’ tastes. Some of this is just popular culture preferences and some is the result of technology. One technology driven change is the increasing importance of a book’s beginning.
Of course, savvy writers already know how important a book’s beginning can be. If you submit to a publisher, many will only want the first 50 pages or so. This means that if a book is slow to get started, it might never do so. The editor will toss the submission if it doesn’t grab the reader from the beginning. It wasn’t always so. Even well regarded novels of the Victorian Age were, shall we say, a bit leisurely in how they began. Pages of description and musings before anything resembling a charactwer or plot were not unusual. Some books even larded up the beginning with a preface, such as this one from a tome entitled Abbeychurch, or Self concern and self conceit (Many older novels featured alternate titles for some reason.) Anyway, here’s what confronts the unsuspecting reader on the first page;
Huh? What?….Sorry, I must have dozed off there for a minute. Now, where was I? Oh, yes; beginnings. Well, you can see that Victorian readers apparently had extraordinary patience, and were willing to wade through a swamp of prelude to reach the high ground of an actual story, but they were almost a captive audience. What were they going to do if the beginning was boring? Maybe watch TV instead? Maybe pop in a DVD? Maybe surf the web for something better? Nope. It was either read a novel or try to scare up some people for a game of Whist or lawn darts. Technology, or lack of it, helped to pepetuate the dull beginning.
Things are different now. The written word has a lot of very flashy competition out there. Few people will sit still for a plodding beginning when other diversions beckon. You have to grab the reader by the neck and yell “Keep reading, damn you!” Now, technology has done even more to made a dull beginning an endangered species. As you probably know, Amazon sells a lot of books, and almost every book listing features a picture of the book cover with the caption Look Inside! If you click on the cover picture, the screen will show the first 20 pages or so of the book. You can even download them into your Kindle. This is the electronic equivalent of browsing through a book in a book store (Except that you can do it in your underwear if you like, something bookstores often frown upon.) This is absolutely critical. This is your big chance to snare the reader and hog tie him. You have to make him want to read more; to make him need to read more. If the beginning doesn’t turn him on, he will never buy the book on the off chance that it will improve. A famous critic once panned a book after reading only the first few pages. When the author objected that he hadn’t read the entire book before condemning it, the critic famously replied “I don’t have to eat an entire egg to know that it’s rotten.”
The beginning is your best and possibly only chance to make the sale. Write a grabber beginning. I have to confess that my own record is a bit spotty in this regard. I start most Max Hurlock Roaring 20s mystery with the murder itself, described in a way to arouse the reader’s interest and curiosity. Once the reader is turning the pages to clear up the crime, I can afford to start filling in background, characters, and plot points. Sometimes, I just start with something to make them read on to clarify things. Here are some beginnings from the series
Death of a Flapper- First line: “That’s odd. There’s a light on in Miriam’s room.”
Death and the Blind Tiger- First line: The sudden silence when the engine stopped would have been restful and pleasant if the biplane had not been 2,000 feet in the air at the time.
Death in Unlikely Places– First line: Everyone was surprised at how much blood a thick wool sweater could absorb.
Death across the Chesapeake- First line: Like mourners at a funeral, the small group of people stood in the hallway in front of the closed office door, talking in hushed tones and shaking their heads.
So that’s why it’s important to start off with a grabber. For the record, my own favorite grabber first line is from Charlotte’s Web.
“Where is Papa going with that ax?”
I dare anyone to stop reading at that point!