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Marginal Notes

Beyond the First Five Pages

An agent once told me that she reads the first sentence of a manuscript. If she likes it, she reads the second, then the third. If she finishes the manuscript, she signs it up.

I suspect most readers are willing to give you a little more leeway than that, but there’s a reason so many workshops, online discussions, articles, and writing books focus on your hook – your first five pages, your opening page, even your first paragraph. Most readers buy books because they know what they’ll be getting. Writers with an established reputation can take their time getting into their stories because they know their readers will stick with them until the story’s underway. But if you’re just starting out, readers are less likely to trust you for a chapter or two. Those opening paragraphs may be the only chance you get to suck them into your fictional world.

But obsessing over your opening paragraphs carries its own risks. You may try to pack so much tension, so much hook into your opening that you wind up writing page one in a voice that doesn’t match page two. Many years ago, I worked with a client who was trying so hard to impress her readers with her hook that her first few pages were unreadably self-conscious. She didn’t settle down to clear prose until about page 10.

Or you could wind up with a brilliant, precisely-crafted, exciting hook that’s not actually part of your story. Years ago, I edited a novel about a Viet Nam nurse that opened with the high drama of a field hospital, then followed her career through the war. Thing is, the main story was less about the nurse’s battlefield experience as about how it affected her when she returned home. Opening in Nam delayed the start of the story for a hundred pages or so, until the writer managed to get the nurse back to the States. In her next draft, the nurse had a flashback-induced panic attack while she was giving birth and wound up huddled under her hospital bed, and things went on from there. It was not quite as exciting as the battlefield, but it pulled readers straight into the story.

The importance of grab-your-readers-by-the-throat tension may be a little overrated, as well. The opening paragraphs are important, sure, but they’re also easy to examine. You can fit a decent analysis of two paragraphs into a 500-word blog entry, or explain what works and what doesn’t in a ten-minute panel discussion at a writing workshop. Judging the opening paragraphs against the context of the entire story takes a lot more time and effort. So the amount of attention that gets paid to your hook in writerly circles may give you a false sense of its value.

A lot of wildly successful books have hooks that most of these reviews would reject out of hand. For instance, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, the first book of the series of the same name, literally opens with the weather. “My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue.” (Bear in mind that, though Meyer’s books have their problems, they are immensely popular. She must be doing something right.) It’s not as if Meyer had a track record to rely on – she had not even written a short story before writing Twilight. It looks like the opener is a classic beginner’s mistake.

Yet the story that follows was strong enough to find a large and grateful readership. And that story does begin with the weather. Bella is moving from sunny Phoenix to perpetually-gray Washington State, where the vampires she meets have chosen to live specifically for the constant cloud cover. (They tend to sparkle in direct sunlight). Readers don’t realize it at the time, but that amateurish-looking comment about the weather drops them into the middle of the true story from the first paragraph.

Another immensely successful first novel, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, opens with a first chapter that is entirely flashback. Even worse, it’s written from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. It opens by introducing the pathologically normal Dursley family, Mr. Dursley’s job with Grunnings Drills, and the family home on relentlessly suburban Privet drive. Things do get a little strange after that, what with a lot of owls flying around and a stray cat who seems to read road signs. But all the action that triggers the events of the first chapter happens in the background.

But Rowling’s opening drops readers into the middle of the strange and whimsical world in which the stories take place, right from the opening line: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” The slight sarcasm of the “. . . thank you very much” tells you that the Dursley’s normality is not going to be the last word, even before Hagrid shows up on the flying motorcycle. And the fact that the motivating action takes place in the background creates the sense of Rowling’s magical world hidden behind the façade of normality the Dursleys represent. The opening violates a lot of the rules of writing a good hook, but it is exactly the right place to start the actual story.

If you open your story with a sharp, snappy hook, you stand a good chance of getting your readers to keep reading. But if you follow that hook with a story that has nothing to do with it, they may not finish. And even if they do, they’ll be less likely to buy your next one. Ultimately, what will build your readership is not your opening paragraphs, but the stories that follow them.