Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Beginnings And Their Endings

My view has always been that great first lines are overrated. Famous opening lines tend to become famous after the fact. Once a book becomes acclaimed or well-loved, the opening takes on a significance that it didn’t have to start with. Nobody read “Call me Ishamel” and thought, Genius!

First paragraphs are overrated too. Orson Scott Card has a theory that the first paragraph is a freebie, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

The first paragraph can be in a different POV, be generic or introductory, set the tone, or be the lyric from a song. It doesn’t really matter and readers don’t really expect it to be consistent with the rest of the book.

Ever since somebody came up with Once upon a time...  readers have understood that.

First chapters, however, are important.



They didn’t used to be, or at least not as much as they are now, but with the way ebooks are sold, allowing only access to the first few pages, it is much more likely that reader will read that sample and use it to decide on whether or not to make the purchase.

That isn’t how I would choose to judge a book. My experience is that openings of books rarely give an accurate indication of whether the rest of the story will be any good. Sometimes a book starts great and stays that way till the end, but rarely. Sometimes they start well and fade, other times they’re slow to get going and then come into their own.

However, the emphasis on the first chapter is changing because of online sites offering the first chapter for free.  And not only does it matter that you give the reader something to draw them in, it also helps if the end of that chapter makes them want to keep reading (i.e. buy the book).

Of course, this will lead to a lot of gimmicky ends of first chapters of the kind where something outrageous and inexplicable happens to make the reader want to know what happens next. Despite knowing it’s a writerly ruse, enough people will be unable to resist to make it a ruse worth considering.

Whatever your thoughts on what should be happening in your first chapter, if you hope to sell it online, it’s worth bearing in mind how important the opening few pages will be, and while not every story should start like a cheap thriller, it might be an idea to think of  chapter one like the first part of a serial.
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61 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My first chapters don't end with cliffhangers. (Most of my chapters don't.)
And I've read lots of books that started good and then went south.

mooderino said...

@Alex - of course having an established readership helps also...

bookdealsandfilmreels said...

Agree that the "Click to look inside" facility at Amazon is making that first chapter even more vital. I'm interested in your breakdowns of first chapters and off to have a look at The Hunger Games. Really interesting thoughts.

CBame13 said...

I still prefer books with a slow build to them. I'm willing to read several chapters into a book before discarding it, but I know that isn't necessarily normal. The advent of Amazon's "click to look inside" has definitely changed the way books are written and I wouldn't be surprised to see a number of high intensity first chapters being either in medias res or otherwise tapering off to a slower book afterwards.

mooderino said...

@books - I really must do some more of those Chapter One breakdowns.

@CBame - I'm the same, I'm willing to give a book quite a few chapters before I give up. But I'm going to be a lot less tolerant of writers who try to be tricky and don't live up to it.

Nancy Thompson said...

I hate it, though, when writers start their first chapter full of action and promise, then the next one is completely different and dull.

Julie Luek said...

I completely agree with first lines and paragraphs. As a reader, I'm even willing to stumble through a slow chapter or two if the premise proves interesting and the potential is exciting. I think someone states writing rules and we're like a herd that runs to that rule. Not to shun what others before us have learned, but there's something to be said for following your own gut and instincts. Good post.

Christine Rains said...

Great advice. I agree about the first chapter being that important.

Murees Dupé said...

First chapters are the toughest for me to write, because I want to create the right impression with regards to the rest of my book. I have bought many books whose first chapters were good and then I ended up putting the book aside because the rest of the book didn't do anything for me. Great post as always.

myriteofpassage said...

If the first chapter does't grab me, that's that - I've got too many other books on my 'to read' and 'to study' lists. Then again, I'm notoriously impatient, so I might've missed out on some fabulous stories that just needed more of my time.

L.G. Smith said...

Yes! Thank you for this. I've never gotten on board with the idea that the first line has to be a real blockbuster or the reader will pass. WTH? . I usually give a book fifty pages before I decide to stop reading. And that's been my experience with agents as well. They'll usually ask for the first fifty because by then you can tell if a story has likable characters and a strong enough conflict to sustain a novel.

bridgetwhelan.com said...

Most times I can give book the space to evolve - it doesn't have to hit me over the head in the opening pages. But I can't think of a good book that had a disappointing first chapter....

Yolanda Renee said...

First chapter, important, yes -- at least for me. Cliffhangers, depends on your book, but action, yes. It's getting that back story in where I fail, and the slowness shows. Learning all the time!

Nick Wilford said...

I've heard a lot that you need to have a super strong hook to start, so it's good to hear a different perspective. I do think the first line needs to be intriguing in some way though.

Teresa Cypher said...

Interesting post and comments. I agree with much of what you say--and like Nick said, it's good to hear a different perspective. I think genre has a lot to do with how the book should start, too. I'm a lot more patient with litfic than I am with a thriller/suspense story. :-)

worldsoutofwords said...

The common consensus seems to be that readers suffer from ADD, all of them, while the reality tells us that
1. readers usually buy something they already wanted,
2. readers don't write reviews based on how the book begins, but often write them based on how it ended.

It's tough to write a well-balanced book, period.

Elise Fallson said...

This post makes me feel like singing in the shower. I've agonized over the first few lines of my wip for too long. I think I'll just start the damn thing with Once upon a time.

The Golden Eagle said...

The market always seems to be skewing things in one direction or the other. It can make it hard to tell what the rest of a book is like if the writer puts more effort into the opening alone.

Madeline Jane said...

Hi from the A-Z Challenge! I totally agree with you. Especially when an agent asks for an excerpt, it's not really the first line or paragraph that's going to hook them, it's the entire first chapter.

R. Mac Wheeler said...

I'll go a step backward and say it isn't the first chapter at all.

It's the blurb.

If I writer can't summarize the glitz of his character or finesse of his plot in 150 words, the story will likely wander, and the character will never enamor me.

Regards, Mac

Sarah Allen said...

I've realized of late that I might be one of those writers whose books start off slower and hopefully pick up steam as they go. I don't know if this is inherently a problem, but you are absolutely right that hooking readers from the first chapter is key. Even just keeping this in mind hopefully makes us pay extra attention to that first chapter and make sure its up to par.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Kirsty said...

I'm somebody that usually perseveres with a book if I've started it so for me endings are far more important than beginnings - I reckon I can be swayed by endings and have to stop when reviewing and try and be more critical of the whole. I have to admit to struggling with the opening of the first Harry Potter but I'm so glad I stuck with it. But when it comes to writing I have come to learn that the opening chapter is very important.

mooderino said...

@Nancy - in the end I think that approach will backfire, but I doubt it will stop people trying to make a quick buck that way.

@Julie - I think there's much to be said for a little patience.

@Christine - thanks.

@Murees - same has happened to me. Too many times.

@myrites - I think a lot of people feel that way. A good first chapter is certainly an effective sales tool.

Maria said...

I am heartened to hear not everyone needs to read a good chapter to continue with the rest of it! This has been a great bugbear for me on my latest WIP, as the first chapter is more of a slow burn.

Usually, I'll get into the action as soon as I can, after years of being told you have to hook your reader with something big happening in the first few pages.

Good post.

Jay Noel said...

Each one of my chapters is like a short story. But me personally, I don't judge a book by a first line or just a first chapter.

mooderino said...

@LG - I think that's the way it's going though. Fast judgement, no second chances.

@Bridget - A bad chapter is a bad book, but a slow opening often picks up after awhile.

@Yolanda - I don't think you need a cliffhanger, just a reason to keep reading.

@Nick - I don't think it hurts to have a hook, but I think the only people who really need an indicator as soon as possible are agents.

@teresa - I think that's certainly true, but a lot of genres other than litfic don't need a James Bond intro.

stfu4abetterrelationship said...

You know ever since I decided to hone my writing and research technique and such, all I have read always talked about how important the beginning. This POV was very refreshing and took more than a little pressure off. Thanks for that! Good luck with the rest of the challenge.

~Sha'
http://stfu4abetterrelationship.wordpress.com/

mooderino said...

@world - I agree.

@Elise - I bet it's The Final Countdown (it will be now).

@Golden - I think a lot more attention should be paid to writing middles (for my stories certainly)

@Madeline - of course, first you have to get then to like the pitch...

@Mac - You're a hard man, Mr Wheeler.

mooderino said...

@Sarah - hopefully, once word of mouth gets out a good book will be known as a good book.

@Kirsty - HP is an excellent example of a slow start.

@Maria - I think there are a lot of readers that can be hooked by a good first page, but hopefully others that take a little more time.

@Jay - I feel it's good to be open minded and judge each book on its merits. Not sure the wind's blowing that way though.

@stfu - and to you too.

millvallison: mary allison tierney said...

There are so many many choices on the shelf, plus so many other distractions for your leisure time, that I'm not sure people will stick around for a full chapter if the first pages don't sell it. Great topic!

M.C.V. Egan said...

Beginnings was a great choice and you gave much food for thought.
It is true that author's today need to hook with the first chapter or two and there is no guarantee that a book won't fade or improve.

Rachel said...

I've never cared much about opening lines. Sometimes I find it hard to find the words to start, but I never thought, "Maybe one day this will be a famous line". I tend to lean towards ending lines, but the story itself is much more important than either of those.

Al Diaz said...

I didn't know first chapters were so important, but when I learned about it, I spent a looong time trying to make it good. And I had not even finished the manuscript. I took it as exercise.

Trisha F said...

I agree that first chapters are important. But I think a book's blurb is more important than anything.

Dawn Malone said...

I'll admit I look at the first line in books when I pick them up in the store. If it doesn't grab me, I'll read the first paragraph. If by that time I'm not hooked, I'll skim the rest of the chapter. I would never judge a book by it's first line but I do think they're important.

Sarah said...

I usually stick to the summary on the back or inside cover. Quicker to flip over to. I try not to judge by a first paragraph because some stories take time to unfold.

Lynn(e) Schmidt said...

I was really disappointed with The Hunger Games first line....but the endings of the chapters kept me going.

VR Barkowski said...

There's as assumption in publishing that every reader wants an action open. Not me, I want mood and tone along with my tension and conflict. Shoving me in the middle of an action scene or ending a chapter with some sort of contrived cliff-hanger—those are gimmicks and the hallmarks of formula. If a cliff-hanger is organic to the story, fine, but it rarely happens. A well-told story unfolds, it doesn't manipulate.

~VR Barkowski

miss uncertain said...

I love the picture. I couldn't help but notice that it's an ouroboros. I've read this one in one of cassandra clare's books.(It sure pays to read.)

Back to the topic, I think that beginnings are important too. I know someone who reads the ending of the story first before deciding whether to read or not to read the rest of it and I don't know why but it annoys me. I can't help but appreciate books with unique beginnings and makes me think that, "Wow, is this even possible?". It's like another way of the author in making an impression.

Sincerely,Miss Uncertain---sidetracked

The Wicked Writer said...

Hum, so if a book has a prologue is that what is shown on line, or the actual first chapter, talking fiction here. Great post that obviously got me thinking. Well done.

mooderino said...

@Mary - I think that's the way it's going. Hopefully it won't lead to loads of unbalanced stories.

@MCV - it's still early days so it'll be interesting to see how things change overthe next few years.

@Rachel - it's when you get to trying to sell the book or get it noticed that these things become an issue, I think.

@Al Diaz - Once you finish the manuscript I think is the best time to work on the opening. You have a much better idea of what's needed.

@Trisha - good blurb is definitely a valuable selling tool. I rarely find a really good one though.

@Dawn - i think a good one can help, but an unremarkable one doesn't really put me off.

mooderino said...

@Sarah - a lot of people are mentioning the blurb. My experience is that it tells me the sort of book it's going to be but rarely if it'll be any good. So if I'm looking for a particular type of book it helps, but not if I'm just browsing.

@Lynn(e) - The whole first chapter of HG is fairly unremarkable. It tells you about the character, but not in a very exciting or engaging way (she wakes up). Just goes tot show you...

@VR - certainly, but as the tools for distribution change it's going to have an effect on how things use those tools to their advantage. And not necessarily in a good way.

@Miss U - I agree, it's one way to make an impression. Shouldn't be the only way though.

@Wicked - cheers.

mrkelly2u said...

Great post.

As long as the first chapter is well written, I'm not too concerned if takes a while to warm up. I do find that a lot of kindle book samples often have mistakes or ugly phrasing which is an instant turn-off for me. Good luck with the rest of the challenge and feel free to pop by to say hello.

Misha Gericke said...

Very true.

I'm trying to think above this when I'm writing. It sounds weird, I know. But my first concern is about writing an excellent story.

Hopefully the first chapter will gain enough interest on its own without me having to resort to gimmicks.

Jadie Jones said...

i read the first paage and the last sentence of any book before I buy it. I know, it's wierd. I am looking not at the story, but the way an author uses words. That's what makes or breaks a book for me.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Mooderino, I have read lots of books that start slow, but end well and also the reverse is true. I am going to try the cliff hanger approach in my current book. I like cliff hangers.

emmlyjane said...

While I believe first chapter (pages) are important, I'd advise caution of writers making promises they are unable to keep. Readers quickly realize they've been had, then they'll remember and resent it.

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!"

mooderino said...

@Kelly - awful spelling and grammar sends a pretty clear message.

@Misha - I try the same, but it does concern me that maybe my opening isn't winning enough.

@Jadie - hard to read the last line online. They don't usually make it available.

@Rachna - good luck! When it's done well I think it can be very effective.

DearKrissy said...

I couldn't agree more! I feel like "Don't judge a book by it's first chapter" is the new "Don't judge a book by it's cover."

mooderino said...

@emmly - mind you, I imagine most writers believe the rest of the story lives up to the intro even when it doesn't.

@DearKrissy - I'm not sure how you can stop people judging by the first chapter if that's all they have to go on.

Laura Marcella said...

Hello, Mood! I enjoy a compelling first line, though I don't think writers should shed blood, sweat, and tears over it. All the sentences that come after it are what's important!

Happy A to Z-ing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

Daisy Carter said...

Hmm, I agree with you that we writers put too much emphasis on first lines sometimes. However, when I go to my local bookstore with my kiddo in tow, pulling me towards the picture books, I do choose based on those first few lines. It's all I have time for.

I think the first line doesn't have to be Amazing, but the first page does, whatever that means for that writer and that story.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

I'm a first sentence addict. Well, I read it and then scan the first page to get a sense of the style. I always read the jacket, too! I'm so context-driven that I have to know what I'm getting into before I buy a book.

cpsingleton42 said...

I must admit that if I'm not hooked within the first few pages my patience never will. Thought provoking post though.
thanks,

nutschell said...

The first chapter is the most important chapter, especially if you're an aspiring author trying to get published. It's the only chapter agents and publishers get to see when you're submitting query letters and sample pages to them. So it definitely has to have some hooking power. :)
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

Actually, people did read "Call me Ishmael" and thought "genius." Especially Hawthorne who was the one "Moby Dick" was intended for.

Terry Eagleton of the University of California at Irvine explained how "Call me Ishmael" can be deconstructed. The book Moby Dick wanders from the pursuit of the White Whale to unrelated details of whaling. By saying "Call me Ishmael" the book is saying "call ME wandering" as well as having a double entendre of the narrator speaking to the reader and expecting you to understand that his name shall be Ishmael and he will tell you the story of Ahab and the devil fish.

So yeah...that really is not a good example of how first sentences can go down in history.

mooderino said...

@Michael - there's no way to know that before you've read the book, only after the fact. My point is nobody is going to read that first line and have an indication of whether the rest of the story will be any good. And if Hawthorne claims otherwise he's a goddam liar, and you can tell him that from me.

Lynda R Young said...

First lines and paragraphs have also become important, not for the readers, but for the agents and publishers, because you need to catch their eye and get out of the slush-pile. You're totally right about the change to first chapters because of the free samples. I do judge a book this way. I don't need an exciting gimmicky end, but I do need to be hooked into the story and like the writing style. I usually know by the first page.

Brinda said...

I recently went through a workshop where I learned about "story promise." This is something that needs to happen on the first page. I realized that when I read, I do want to get a feel for the author's style and the POV.

V. N. said...

Late to the party here, but I just wanted to say that while I think first chapters are important, they are not always the deal breakers for me as a reader.

First, I look at the blurb. If that sounds interesting, I might peek inside the book. Sometimes, I just take a chance and buy the book.

I tend to finish reading every book I start. With a few exceptions: The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and Life of Pi. I know, big exceptions. I just couldn't get into them.

Um, I got interrupted while forming this post in my mind, so I can't remember what point I was trying to make. So... have a nice day!

mooderino said...

@Lynda - I think they've always been important to agents and publishers but only for practical reasons. I've always felt if you really want to find great books you have to dig deeper than that, especially with newer authors. The idea you're going to find the finished product or a first time smash hit is what's been killing the industry I think.

@Brinda - I certainly think that's true about the promise, but it's quite a flexible thing and not something you can put into a formula or pin to one area. The start should make the reader feel they're going somewhere. How to do that is not quantifiable, although you know it when you read it.

@VN - I read every book I start too, although some get skimmed in large parts.

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