A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

So here’s a question that I posed the other day on The Twitters, after seeing it discussed by a few other folks. There’s an awful lot of writing advice that counsels writers to “grab the reader on Page One!”. You have to hook your reader immediately, and if you can do it with a great opening line, so much the better.

Here’s my problem with that: My own experience as a reader runs deeply contrary to this. I honestly can remember very few books I’ve read where I knew on the first page that I didn’t like the book. This seems to me the equivalent of walking out of a movie after the first ninety seconds. Now, I don’t really have a hard-and-fast rule as to how long to give a book. Some readers I know say “Six chapters”, while others have said “One hundred pages”. I tend to keep going until I find myself realizing that I simply am not invested at all in the events of the book or its characters, and not only does it seem unfair to me to conclude that I don’t have that investment on Page One, but it also generally takes me a while to get to that level of investment. Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy is as beloved a book to me as any, but I distinctly remember not really getting into it until quite literally halfway through the first installment, at which point something shattering happens. (By construction, one of his characters is a fellow who initially seems a bit on the “soul-dead” side, and then you get the explanation for why he’s that way, and that’s when GGK has you. But that’s for another time.)

I’ve also had any number of times the experience of starting a book, abandoning it because it wasn’t “grabbing” me, and then giving it another go a while later and loving it.

Ditto first lines. A great first line is a wonderful thing indeed, and even when I write I try to come up with a first line that hints of amazing things to come. But to insist on a “great” first line from a novel always seems to me an awful lot of pressure to put on just a few words. There are many great first lines, but I’m not convinced that every great novel has a great first line. I certainly don’t recall the first lines of many of my most beloved books — the afore-mentioned Fionavar Tapestry, or GGK’s The Lions of Al-Rassan, which might well be my favorite book ever. I know the first line of The Hobbit (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”), but I couldn’t tell you the first line of The Lord of the Rings. Everybody knows “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities, but that’s not even the entire first line; who can recite that entire amazing opening paragraph? I certainly can’t. Lather, rinse, repeat, across my entire library.

What say you, readers? How much do you expect from first lines or first pages? Do you have general rules for when to abandon a book that’s not getting the job done at that point in time?

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7 Responses to A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

  1. Call me Paul says:

    I don't have a hard and fast rule about how much of an uncompelling book I have to read before I give up on it. It sits on my bedside table, and I pick it up to read until, at some point, I stop picking it up to read, and pick up something else. I'd say it's rare for that to happen on the first page, but I'm pretty sure it has on at least one or two occasions.

  2. Lynn says:

    I'm normally pretty stubborn about not quitting in the middle of a book. That makes me feel like… well, a quitter. I have quit a couple of books after only two or three chapters because there was something about them that told me right away that "this is SO not my cup o' tea."

    Very often, I read books that are kind of "meh" at first and then I get really hooked literally halfway through the book. I guess it varies with different readers though. I know people who will quit if a book doesn't grab them right away.

  3. Roger Owen Green says:

    Well, I've quit books WAY before p 100. When the language (word structure, not necessarily vulgarity) gets in the way of the enjoyment, I might quit in 20 pages. Generally I'll go 60 pages before I quit.
    But books are sort of like movies in that – unless it's an action flick – you can't tell much in the first five minutes.

  4. fillyjonk says:

    One-size-fits-all advice is generally stupid.

    I've seen people strive for "grabby" titles (on journal articles, for example) that are not very informative and frankly come off as stupid.

    Yes, there are 'great' first lines (you cited a few) but I've also read some very enjoyable and meaningful books that I wasn't immediately grabbed by.

    (In fact, I tend to be slightly suspicious of things made "too grabby" – they smell of marketing.)

  5. the author says:

    I give every author five pages. As in, if your story can't interest me by page five, your book is going in the library donation box.

    I never judge books by their first line because 99% of the time the first line is always the product of some writing workshop brainwashing, a painfully overwritten hook, or some variation of a weather report.

  6. SamuraiFrog says:

    I don't have a rule on this (except that if you get 50 or so pages in and it just isn't working, life's short), but one of the ways my disorders work is that if something doesn't grab my attention in the first few pages, I tend to put it down and I might or might not go back to it. I recently finished a Pulitzer prize winner that I've wanted to read for a decade and a half. When I first tried it, I either wasn't in the right mood/mindset or it just didn't pull my attention right away. I usually attribute that to my own attention span (or lack thereof) rather than the work itself, unless I just get really far in and it still isn't clicking for me.

    (That Pulitzer winner ended up being really wonderful, so I blame whatever mood I was in 15 years ago.)

  7. Annehueser says:

    I just gave away a book that I never read despite sitting by my bed and going on all of my lengthy trips for the last 5 years. I didn't even make it to the first sentence. On the other hand, I usually only quit a book in the first few pages if there are so many mistakes I can't get into the story. Otherwise they get 50 to 100 pages to grab me.

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