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?