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.