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 first 100 words are extremely important if you want to get published.
Most agents and publishers won't read your manuscript if the first sentence, paragraph and page doesn't catch their interest. If the first page does the job, they'll keep reading, but if you lose their interest anytime within the first 100 pages after that, forget about it. Keeping their interest doesn't mean piling on the action, it means writing a gripping and interesting and colorful story.
If you're an established author who makes the publishers oodles of money, then you can take a bit more time. As an unknown, however, forget about it.
Sometimes it's good to start out with something mundane, though. Like say a story with a cop as protagonist. You open up with him standing on a street corner looking around and drinking a cup of coffee while nothing happens. And you proceed in this vein, because part of the point is that nothing interesting happens in this cop's life. Might seem pretty boring but it's building to something. You can start with weather, you can start with someone getting up in the morning. It's all in how it's handled, and if you're always focusing on how am I going to hook the reader, how am I going to hook the reader, then you're missing out on the opportunity to let your story proceed naturally, and sometimes that means starting with something mundane. Discouraging experimentation just leads to the same old junk over and over again.

Personally, getting published is not the my first priority. My first priority is the story. If you're willing to sacrifice the story for the perceived better possibility of a sale, then fine. Everyone is free to write whatever he wants, for whatever reason he wants. I'm just on the side of "put the story first".
If we're talking novels here, I would argue that it's never good to start with something mundane, John, unless you've given the reader a strong hint that it's going to pay off down the line.
"I stopped in for a quiet drink, knowing it was my last. The rain mocked . . ."
Hooking the reader doesn't mean sacrificing the story — in fact, it is putting the story first. You're saying to the reader, here's a hell of a story that I know you'll want to relish.
A mundane scene where "nothing interesting happens" is fine if you're writing a diary for yourself; same goes if you have no interest in being published. Hobbies to please yourself are fine, but is a story that isn't shared, still a story?
Maybe your tastes are more limited than mine. I see more possibilities in writing than you seem to. Saying something should "never" be done is not advice I plan to ever take when it comes to writing.

People do have different tastes, though. Some people have to have something going on all the time, and others, like me, for example, can tolerate a story that moves slowly and/or is a bit introspective. But I don't like absolutes when it comes to storytelling. That said, I also think writers should do what they want. So if you want to worry about the first 100 words, go ahead. I'm just giving my view on the subject.
A story that moves slowly and is introspective had better be as engaging as any other story. This isn't about slow versus fast -- and that, I think is your fundamental misunderstanding of the original Murderati post. This is about engaging versus boring.

THE biggest sin in writing is boring your reader.
If you don't care about being published, then what are you worried about? Write what you want to write and hope your friends will read through the mundane stuff to get to the stuff that's more interesting.

Publishing is a competitive, commercial endeavor. Art is important, but in publishing it is secondary to the marketing and selling of a manufactured product. If you don't like that, I don't really blame you, but that's what the free market does to art. As an artist, you can pout about it, or you can look at the reality (for example, that in commercial writing you have, if you're lucky, a hundred words to catch someone's attention) and adapt to it.

The last thing the world needs is another book. So if you're going to write one, you should at least consider the possibility of writing one someone wants to read.

Or, simply write for yourself. That's perfectly honorable.
Never said I didn't care about being published. I said I don't want to sacrifice the story to do it. Sometimes you need to start slow, maybe to establish the mood, or to provide a contrast to some action later on. The point is that I don't think you need to worry about the first 100 words. Just write the story and if it's written well everything will be fine. It's focusing on grabbing the reader that I think is limiting. Focus on telling the story the most natural way you can instead of confining yourself to rules that don't apply in all situations. Like Elmore Leonard's Rules of Writing. Some of those are so wishy washy they're a waste. Don't do this, unless you can get away with it. Yet, now a lot of people aren't going to open with weather because it breaks a rule. But weather or setting in general can set the mood or the tone of the story, it can ground the story and get you into it easier.

I take issue with your free market statement, because publishing today is not even close to a free market.
I can't imagine anyone taking Elmore Leonard's rules of writing so seriously actually producing much of a story. Of course, I think humour is an important part of any story and not being able to see the cheekiness and playfulness of those 'rules' would pretty much rule out humour.

Otherwise, you're right, just write a well-written story. The reason I think the first 100 words has become so important is because too often it's not where the story starts and it should be. I often find myself on page 10 or 20 or 50 saying, "finally, a story starts."

I saw a 'rule' the other day from some agent that said, "no backstory in the first 50 pages," and immediately wanted to know who all his clients were so I could avoid their books.

Now, I wondered this in another thread but never got an answer - how many companies have to be active in an industry for it to be an open market? What is the magic number?
Of course it's a free market, as free as any market is, anyway. After all, who's regulating it? It's just a mature market and so suffers from many problems associated with mature markets: capital and control increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, supply homogenizing and expanding faster than demand, which produces thinner margins and promotes increasingly risk averse decision-making, increasing barriers to entry created through the consolidation of power in fewer and fewer players who monopolize and control distribution. And what's a market for but to conserve capital and generate profit? Neither endeavor automatically promotes experimentation. Publishers are, for the most part, playing it safe, pouring marketing dollars into sure things and leaving a few dry bones and dead twigs for the rest. Yes, it's a free market. But it's a very unfriendly market.

And in the face of that, you're surprised that agents and publishers want it to start with the first word of page one? They have thousands of choices that come in over the collective transom, millions even. The nature of this quite free market means they don't have time for you to meander through the mundane until you finally stumble across your story.

Of course it's limiting, but art always exists within limits. As an artist, you can either figure out how to wring creativity out of those limitations, or you can complain fecklessly and be left behind.
In the three books I've written so far for St. Martin's, not once have I felt I sacrificed story to get published.
Everything in a novel or story needs to serve a purpose. I think you'd be hard pressed to find superfluous writing in any great work--genre or otherwise. Whether it's creating tone, character, place or action, there has to be a purpose to what you're writing.

As far as what editors and agents expect, I think that's going to differ from person to person, but what your goal as a writer needs to be is make the book compelling from the first word--and not to have anything unnecessary cluttering it up.
It's true, not many books I bought in the last ten years open with 'action.' They also don't open too mundane. What I like is a book in which the story starts rights away, where there's some hint about the theme, about what the real meat of the thing is going to be about. If it's that cop standing there having a cup of coffee there has to be *something* about it to make me feel it's going to be a story.

I think you're right, though, everything about a book is different from a movie and one thing that turns me off a book is if it's too "movie-like" or if it clearly wants to be a movie. I would prefer your cop standing and having a coffee if there was some hint of story or some insight into character far more than some car chase, bomb going off, serial killer grabbing sorority girl 'action' opening.

I like Elmore Leonard novels. People always say they're so 'visual,' so much like movies but they're not really at all. They're almost the opposite of that, there's almost no action and most of the books are just people talking to each other. This why they've so rarely been turned into good movies. I'm not sure why filmmakers can't see that.


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