Do you start off with a bang?

Thanks to some contests I've come across recently, I've started re-evaluating my opening scenes. Having cut my teeth on the work of Nora Roberts, an expert at the slow build, I don't necessarily need instantaneous impact in paragraph 1, Chapter 1 for me to buy a book. There doesn't have to be an explosion on the first line, actual or metaphorical, for me to want to continue reading. But we hear over and over again how critical it is to hook a reader immediately; in fact, that's probably one of the first things we're taught as writers. Start "en media res" - in the middle of things.

I frequently rely on voice as my initial "hook," because truthfully, I often like to start just a few moments before the inciting event, to allow the reader to invest in the character a bit first. Some books I start at the point of impact. But lately I see more and more how critical the beginning is - a catchy voice is great, but if there's not a hook, often in the first line, an editor or agent may just give up and move on. And that says nothing about readers.

As a writer - and reader - how long do you give a story before you take it up to the checkout counter (physical or virtual) or put it back on the shelf? And in your own stories, do you hit the ground running or acquaint the reader with the character first? Probably the sweet spot is managing to do a bit of both, but I'm curious if you have to know a little about a character before you care he's about to be eaten by a huge winged dinosaur. ;)


Lynne Roberts said...

Great post, Cari.

The first line is what gets me excited about a book, but I'll give a book several chapters before I decide if I really like it.

It doesn't have to be an action-filled first line, just something that catches my interest. I actually want to know the character a little before I even care whether the winged dinosaur carries him or her off.

tara leigh coons said...

Great post, Cari.

I gotta say, it's either the voice or the action that's gotta grab be within the first 3 pages to keep me interested.

If the voice is funny or smart-alecky then that will keep me interested as well.

HUGE amounts of world building at the start--yep, cya. That's one of those that will kill my read.

The Goddess Hathor said...

For me, if it isn't one of my top-twenty-read-anything-she-or-he-writes author, I open the book to the middle. If I want to know how the characters got there, and what they're going to do next, I buy the book.

I find I can't start at the start to see if I'm going to like a book. I have to see the middle, to see if the intro BANG was really more a FIZZLE.

~ Hath

Kaily Hart said...

Mmm, interesting question. As a reader I hate the slow start. I like to immediately have something to connect to the character and description/backstory doesn't do it for me. I'll go by voice. If the voice doesn't click for me, I'll find it very hard to keep reading. If the characterization or plot hasn't lived up to expectations, I'll probably figure that out by chapter 3 and give it up. As a writer, thinking back to the last 3 ms's I've written, I've started all 3 with a line of dialogue that immediately puts the reader in the middle of something and (hopefully) asking 'what the heck is going on here? I need to know more'. Huh. Never really thought about it before. But I've heard the same thing over and over since I've been writing. The first paragraph has to be compelling to interest an editor and that's what I have to target towards right now. I've even heard there must be a hook at the end of the first chapter, end of the first page and even in the first line!

Kaye Manro said...

Nice post, Cari.

I like the sweet spot approach to a story. I've read books with great opening hooks only to be let down by following paragraphs.

As writers I think we should strive for both a hook and strong story behind it to follow through and back that hook up!

Helen Hardt said...

I agree with Kaye! I love a strong hook, but if it fizzles after that, I will put the book down. Personally, I like starting a story during or right before an important event. But I've also been known to write a chapter of backstory, too. It depends on the story.

J.A. Saare said...

I like both. A hook is great, but the story is ultimately what sells me on the author. ;-)

Ashley N said...

To be honest, I think voice is the biggest hook for me as a reader. A voice that gives me a good idea of the MC from the start. Why I should care. However, I know I'm the minority here. It doesn't have to be a slow start necessarily b/c I like my action just as much as anyone, but if I don't care then I won't read much past the first few pages.

Christina Phillips said...

I need to know something of the characters before I care what happens to them, otherwise I'm like, meh. That first page is such a balancing act to get right. And I agree with Kaye and Helen - a great hook and strong story to back it up!

Sarah Simas said...

HI Cari!

Fun topic! I used to be quite the book snob. If it wasn't my normal author, I wouldn't pick it up. I really shot myself in the foot there. lol But I have started branching out to different genres and have been loving it! lol Imagine that!

I'll give a book the benefit of the doubt. If it doesn't hook me by the third chapter or so, it gets handed off. Sometimes, if the author's voice stands out, I'll keep reading, but usally a lemon is a lemon. :)

Smut Girl said...

If I'm buying it, one page. I am brutal. If I have borrowed it, there's a fifty page rule. If you don't have me by 50, I put it down.

As a writer. I hit the ground running. And swinging, and...sometimes in mid sentence. :)

thanks for commenting on ERCJ today. I really appreciate it!


Shelley Munro said...

I usually read the first chapter before I'll give up on a book. As a reader, I don't mind a slow build up. I think if the build up is slow there needs to be something intriguing and/or memorable about the characters to carry the reader onward.