There was an interesting article on Murderati today about the first 100 words of a novel and how important it was to grab the reader's attention early.

My question is, how important are those 100 words, really? I say not as much as everyone says. The idea is to start well and get the reader's attention at the beginning, to "hook" the reader and hopefully keep the reader interested so he/she will finish the book.

Well, I'm not a fish. I'm not dazzled by your prose and then reeled through the rest of your book. That suggests that reading is a passive activity, and it most certainly is not.

Movies are passive, for example, in that all the audio and visual information is provided for you and you just have to process it in your brain. Whereas with a novel, you have to create all the sights and sounds youself, through your own imagination, albeit, guided by the words on the page. In that sense, reading is an active activity. So hooking me and dragging me along is not how it works. It just isn't.

I don't pick up a book and expect to hate it. I don't read the book, just waiting for it to get boring so I can put it down and turn on the TV. If I wanted to do that I would just watch TV to start with. No, when I read I am hoping to be transported to another world, to experience a movie in my head (sometimes I even have Sean Connery or Harrison Ford play the lead role). I will give the book the benefit of the doubt and I will be patient with it up to a point.

Aren't we all like that? How many of you give up on a book after 100 words? Okay, maybe if you are impulse buying at the bookstore. Now, everyone has their own criteria when impulse buying, but how prevalent is impulse buying anyway? Out of the last 100 books you bought, how many were bought on impulse as opposed to being recommended by someone or actively being sought out after reading a review about it or seeing an ad, or whatever? If the number is 50% or less, than I think it's not an issue. I know for me, most of the books I buy I actively seek out. For example, I like Asian literature, and I look for new releases and older releases I'm not aware of because I want to read as much as I can.

So what's the big deal, anyway? Well, the big deal is that by saying that the first 100 words has to catch the reader's attention, you end up setting yourself up to write the same kind of story over and over again: that is, a story that starts fast and stays fast.

Now I know genre fiction is defined by its formulas/tropes, but I don't think anyone sets out to just repeat ad nauseum, right? Sometimes it's good to start out slow, to set a certain mood, or maybe to make the action more intense and jarring when it does come. Newsflash: a slow burn is not just for literary fiction or navel-gazing stories, or whatever.

And by focusing on grabbing the reader, you lose out on trying a lot of other techniques that might really work to tell your story better (or maybe not, but you'll never know if you don't experiment, when you're less likely to do if you go into the story thinking about how to gab the reader quick.)

The reader will wait for a period of time. You don't have to hit them over the head right off. And I don't believe an editor or agent is going to stop reading just because there is no action at the beginning. He or she will probably be glad for the change. Out of 10 novels on his/her desk, and one of them starts out kind of slow and the other 9 start out fast, which one will stand out?

The quality of the writing will matter more than the pace at the beginning, so I say, don't worry so much about "hooking" the reader. The reader came here for a story, so just give it to him.

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The emphasis on starting with a bang is over-hyped and a part of the formulaic writing that has made much genre literature so despised.

However, it is true that agents and editors (being swamped with material) think they can separate the chaff within the first whatever (I've seen an agent state that she only needs the first sentence).

It is also true that as a reader I don't give an unfamiliar author very long before I toss the book. Mind you, I don't buy books unless the author has a track record for me. The others I sample from the library, and roughly half get tossed unread. What turns me off is poor writing and a boring beginning. Occasionally I toss a book because it is too formulaic or falls into some category I don't relate to.

As a writer, I begin where it seems appropriate. Usually that is at an interesting point, but if it isn't and I'm afraid to lose the readers' patience, I use a prologue to show the crime being committed.
Again, I don't think it's about starting with a bang. It's about ENGAGING the reader right from the start.
There was an interesting article on Murderati today about the first 100 words of a novel and how important it was to grab the reader's attention early.

My question is, how important are those 100 words, really? I say not as much as everyone says. The idea is to start well and get the reader's attention at the beginning, to "hook" the reader and hopefully keep the reader interested so he/she will finish the book.

Well, I'm not a fish. I'm not dazzled by your prose and then reeled through the rest of your book. That suggests that reading is a passive activity, and it most certainly is not.


These first 109 words certainly grabbed everyone's attention and made your point clearly. The ending was good too. But I think you could possibly trim a few words in the middle to make your point clearer ...

Anyway, I'm just playing. Everyone's made some great points in the thread. An interesting discussion.
I lean in your camp. I realize that you do have to get the interest of the reader early on, but I think too much emphasis is being placed on the catchy beginning. I know it's often common for aspiring authors to re-write the opening chapter over and over and over again, and not do nearly as much work on the body of the story.

And thus we have books that sag in the middle after a promising beginning, or wane well before the end. Someone mentioned to me that there's an author who said they never read the last 20 or 30 pages of books now, or something like that, because they just go on and on. (I wish I had that quote, but I'm traveling at the moment.)

I'm a believer in strong endings. It goes to something Al Guthrie said to me once - your ending sells your next book. By the time a reader finishes (assuming they do) they've long forgotten the catchy intro but what will be fresh in their brain is the weak ending. A book should be consistent. The writing should be consistent. That doesn't mean there can't be adjustments in pacing - like music, that can work exceptionally well.

Personally speaking, my PW review said "the straight proceduralism from Ruttan serves the story well through the rewarding climax" and that made me happy. Well, other things did too, but that is something I'm aiming for, and if I was only allowed to pick one thing that I feel I nailed in WHAT BURNS WITHIN and in THE FRAILTY OF FLESH, it would be the endings. And I'd much rather have PW saying I never let the tension lag and have a rewarding climax than saying I start off strong and fizzle out.
I hope Al's not trying to take credit for that ;) It was Mickey Spillane:

“Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it's a letdown, they won't buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”
http://thinkexist.com/quotes/mickey_spillane/

It is a good line, though.
No, Al's not trying to take credit for it - I just remember he's the one that relayed it to me. I have travel brain at the moment. :)
Talking about endings. I just finished Ken Bruen's The Dramatist the other night and the ending absolutely floored me - Wow! I'm still gob-smacked.
Naturally, I started reading Priest this morning ;-)
Hah, I'm behind on Bruen.
I see you're getting your Brit lingo down, Grant. ;)
I haven't read any of the other responses here, so I may be repeating what others have said, but what strikes me about your post is a fundamental misunderstanding of what those first 100 words represent. You say, "you end up setting yourself up to write the same kind of story over and over again: that is, a story that starts fast and stays fast."

Hooking the reader with the first 100 words has NOTHING to do with starting fast and staying fast. There are many different ways to hook a reader and starting fast is only ONE of them. But if you cannot ENGAGE your readers with those first 100 words, how on earth do you expect to engage them with the next 100 or the next and the next?

When an agent, an editor or a reader picks up a manuscript or book, he expects to be pulled into a world and held there until the last paragraph. If you don't put as much care into those first 100 words as you do the rest of the book then you are simply shooting yourself in the foot.
As the guy who wrote that post on Murderati, I should chime in here. John, I think you misunderstood my point. It's not about starting quickly or in action or in the middle of a scene. Those are all choices, sure. But it's starting out with words that grab the reader and suck them into your story. That could be a beautiful description, or an interior monologue. It can be anything really, but it must be interesting, and well written. That was the point. The first 100 words are also not the most important part of a book, but they are right up there. Ultimately, it's about the entire story you tell. The first 100, or first chapter even, gets them into the book, the body keeps them there, and the end makes them want to read your next one. All important.
Oh. My Gosh. I agonize over the first hundred words--the first fifty words--like you would not believe. I think they're critical. Normally, I'll go back and change the opening paragraphs a gazillion times to get it just right. It's especially important when the first few pages of your next book appear in the back of the current one. As a reader, if the first few paragraphs don't hook me, I'll look for something else--another book, usually.

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