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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Personally, I give a story at least the first couple of chapters to get going. But with all the competing media, TV, video games, etc., the attention span of readers is dwindling rapidly!

Not every story has to begin with a lot of action or start out fast (ie: guns blazing, etc.) but the first page or so should convince me to continue reading. I have an excellent example of what I mean...Copper River by William Kent Krueger.

His first 100 words (90 words, actually) begin with a description of nature, from the viewpoint of a native American Indian that is very beautiful. Then he introduces, in one sentence, a tragedy that is about to happen. There is no action, but in the first 100 words he compels the reader to continue, if only to see why and how this tragedy occurs. And he does it without being fast or violent or using gimmicks. Proof that a good story can capture the readers attention early, and still read like poetry.
The first 100 words is an introduction to what the whole damn book is going to be about and what the writer's style is like. Frankly, I have little patience with a novel in any genre that opens with coffee drinking, sleeping or otherwise passive activities and would be unlikely to continue with said novel. That is my preference, though others may have different likes/dislikes.

I seriously doubt the 'hook' analogy is intended to imply that readers passively participate. And most fish (actual) aren't exactly passive once they realize a hook has been embedded in their mouths, either. That sense of energy and urgency, though...that makes sense. I understand it to mean that the writer grabs the reader's interest and then provides a strong enough story engine to make the reader want to find out what happens.

The comments about agents and publishers are pretty spot on for the crime fiction genre (and this is, after all, a forum/site whose focus is crime fiction). They do not want to wade through piles of deathless prose to get to the meat of the story. Are there exceptions? Of course there are. Write what the story needs (duh), but don't be surprised if a long, slow start that is more interested in telegraphing 'look! I'm writing!' than in placing your reader into the story right away, makes it a more difficult sell.
The first 100 words/first page whatever is VERY important. I HAVE given up on books within a couple of pages because they're just not going anywhere and if that makes me a fish then so be it. That doesn't mean that a book has to start off with tons of action but it does need to have something which makes me keep reading. John, your example:

"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."

Well, if nothing interesting happens in his life then why on earth would I want to read about him?

One of my favourite authors is Daniel Woodrell. He does great openings. Some of them are action packed, some are not. Here's the first 100 or so words from WINTER'S BONE:

"Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavour, sweeten the meat to the bone. Snow clouds had replaced the horiszon, capped the valley darkly, and chafing wind blew so the hung meat twirled from jigging branches."

It's a description of the place and the weather but I love it and really want to read on. Or here's the first 100-odd words from Woodrell's MUSCLE FOR THE WING:

"Wishing to avoid any risk of a snub at The Hushed Hill Country Club, the first thing Emil Jadick shoved through the door was double-barreled and loaded. He and the other two Wingmen were inappropriately attired in camouflage shirts and ski masks, but the gusto with which they flaunted their firearms squelched any snide comments from the guests seated around the poker table. Jadick took charge of the rip-off by placing both cool barrels against the neck of a finely coiffed, silver haired gent, and saying loudly, "Do I have your attention? We're robbin' you assholes - any objections?" "

Lots of action there and again, it makes me want to read on.

Two very different openings but both intriguing and wonderfully written. I love the beginnings of books and they are very important to me. It's what starts me reading. Of course, the book has to continue well to KEEP me reading but to be honest I have so many books on Mt TBR that the one that gets my attention is going to be the one with the stellar opening - whether it's a line, a paragraph or a chapter.
I think the thing about novels is that what happens in them is not of the ordinary. That's why we want to read them. The point of the first 100 words is that you're telling the reader that something extraordinary has happened to THIS person, and here it is.... We almost have to put aside the idea that people live regular lives where nothing really happens and they patter along in a routine. the routine can be a part of the book, but the fact that the routine has been broken, that life is spiraling in a different direction, is what is interesting. On that same vein, some books make you work, by setting up themes first. I'm think of McEwan's Atonement where the first 60 pages are almost painfully boring or Jann Martel's Life of Pi where I've known more people to quit before they hit the 70 page mark than not. But themes, ideas, setting, all this is being set up. though nothing happens. Does this make them bad book? No, but they are certainly books that a new writer would have a hell of a time selling as their first.
I don't really care if anything happens in the first 100 words, but the tone is being set. I think a lot of writers use the first sentence, first paragraph, first hundred words, as excuses not to write the rest of the book, so intent they are on polishing them. The hook is not action, but tone. Do the first 100 words draw me into a world I'll want to spend hours in? Lee Child's THE HARD WAY starts with Reacher drinking coffee, and , as I remember, he spend the first 100 words telling us why Reacher came to the same coffee shop two days in a row. (I had not read any Child before this, so anticipation didn't keep me reading.) Still, Child sets a tone in those 100 words that made me want to read the next hundred, then the whole chapter, then another chapter, and before i knew it the book was over.
I don't think you can improve over these first 30 words, to hell with the first 100:

"She had a seventy-eight inch bust, forty-six inch waist and seventy-two inch hips--measurements that were exactly right, I thought, for her height of eleven feet, four inches."

From Take A Murder, Darling by Richard S. Prather
LOL. You can never go wrong with a Prather opening. The man was a genius. And Dana - that's exactly it. Whatever it's about, if it doesn't want to make you keep reading, you're not going to. I can just as easily be put off by an action packed first 100 words as by a 100 words filled with nothing.There has to be something there to keep me reading, and it's not necessarily 100 blood soaked bodies. However, I knew when I read the first 100 words of Alain Robbe Grillet's LA JALOUSIE that I was REALLY going to hate the book:

"It was A . . . who arranged the chairs this evening, when she had brought them out on the veranda. The one she invited Franck to sit in and her own are side by side against the wall of the house--backs against the wall, of course--beneath the office window. So that Franck's chair is on her left, and on her right--but farther forward--the little table where the bottles are. The two other chairs are placed on the other side of this table, still farther to the right, so that they do not block the view of the first two through the balustrade of the veranda. For the same reason these last two chairs are not turned to face the rest of the group: they have been set at an angle, obliquely oriented toward the openwork balustrade and the hillside opposite. This arrangement obliges anyone sitting there to turn his head around sharply toward the left if he wants to see A . . . --especially anyone in the fourth chair, which is the farthest away."

Unfortunately, while I would have loved to stop reading it there and then, I could not, as it was an assigned book at university. It got worse. Every 4 pages there was the same scene of a caterpillar crawling down a wall. By about page 16 I wanted to throw the book at the wall AND the caterpillar. That first 100 words set the tone alright. Sadly, it was not a tone I enjoyed :o)

Here's one that I LOVE - where absolutely nothing happens but where the tone and the voice just make me want to keep reading - from Joe Lansdale's A FINE DARK LINE:

"My name is Stanley Mitchell Jr, and I'll write down what I recall. This took place in a town named Dewmont, and it's a true story. It all happened during a short period of time, and it happened to me. Dewmont got its name from an early settler named Hamm Dewmont. Little else is known about him. He came, gave his name to the place, then disappeared from history. Dewmont during its early days was a ratty collection of wooden huts perched on the edge of the Sabine River in the deep heart of East Texas, a place of red clay and white sand, huge pines and snake infested wetlands."

He didn't really need to tell the reader that something happened (it's a book, of COURSE something happened (well, unless your Alain Robbe Grillet!), he also didn't need to tell the reader about the beginnings of Dewmont. None of it moves the story on but it really works. It sets the tone and the voice and is far from boring.Makes me want to sit down for a good long read of a Joe Lansdale.
I have to tell you, I quit reading that first example before I got through it. Poor thing, I can't imagine having to read a whole book of that!
Yeah, Dick was the master of the juxtaposition of the bizarre and the ordinary, combined with a rather laconic delivery. Joe has that ability, too.

I always strive for that effect with own opening hooks. Here's the first 70 plus words from a recent novel of mine, Cryptozoica:

When Kavanaugh heard about the throat-cutting, he knew exactly where to find Mouzi.

There had been a brawl at the Phoenix of Beauty. A Papuan deckhand had gotten too rough with one of the girls and the pair of wicked little butterfly knives Mouzi always carried came out of her pockets.

After Mouzi was done with him, the bouncer threw the man onto the embankment so the archaeopteryx could eat what was left.
Those archaeopteryx are right bastards ;-)
Now that's something you don't see everyday! I think I'll add this one to my reading list.
In the five or six years between completing the first draft of my mystery and arriving at my current status (a month shy of publication), with three more completed manuscripts, two short stories written (one in print), and many, many agents, editors, reviewers, and fellow writers commenting on my work, I find that I have become less resentful of the demands of the marketplace and more willing to "kill my darlings" and tighten up my prose. My eye as a reader has changed too. I recently read an acquaintance's small press book (not a mystery, so I hope the person won't see this!) and was thrown off by the first sentence, which read, in part, "[Character's name] just sat staring at the body...lying there...." I read the whole book, but the unnecessary "just" and "there" affected my impression of the professionalism of both writer and publisher.


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