Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First Paragraphs, First Pages, First Impressions, Et Cetera

Let's talk about what the opening passage of a book is supposed to do. The writer's number one job when writing a novel's first page is to establish for the reader that a good story is beginning and to assure him that the author has the ability to tell that story. The opening promises something interesting and intelligible (most times). It sets the tone, mood and style of the story, and gives the reader an idea of what she is in for.

We should look at the opening passages from some successful novels.

Here's the beginning of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precurser? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

This passage is, on the surface, about a girl named Lolita. In reality, it is the egocentric narrator telling us about himself, which prefigures the tone and style of the whole book. Nabokov has begun as he means to continue. He has challenged the reader to a battle of wits and piqued our interest with that thrown-away reference to "a murderer."

Here's the opening of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

All was confusion in the Oblonskys' house. The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess, and had announced to the husband that she could not live in the same house with him. This situation had continued for three days now, and was painfully felt by the couple themselves, as well as by all the members of the family and household. They felt that there was no sense in their living together and that people who meet accidentally at any inn have more conncection with each other than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife would not leave her rooms, the husband was away for the third day. The children were running all over the house as if lost; the English governess quarrelled with the housekeeper and wrote a note to a friend, asking her to find her a new place; the cook had already left the premises the day before, at dinner-time; the kitchen maid and the coachman had given notice.

The first line here is Tolstoy's "theme sentence," the claim that he will have to "prove" by the events he gives us in the book. We know already that we will see an account of a uniquely unhappy family.

You can say that what follows that first line is all "telling," but so what? The list of tensions, of battles in and defections from the household is delightfully energetic. Tolstoy has launched us headlong into the middle of a domestic war. We know that the situation can't last; something's got to give and it won't be pretty when it does.

Here's one you might already know:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

A lot of The Hobbit is about being underground, and we are first given a contrast between nice underground living and "nasty, dirty, wet." The nice versus the nasty is a constant element in this book, running all through the story. Even so seemingly tame a sentence as this contains conflict and mystery.

And finally, this is how Neil Gaiman opened his Newberry Prize-winning The Graveyard Book:

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.

Gaiman begins in medias res. Something horrible is happening. The focus on the knife, as if it is an intelligent agent, and the "not immediately" are sinister and disorienting: we want to know what is going on, as all this elliptical prose is creepy and we want to rule out our own worst fears as soon as possible. The language and tone here are calm, low-key to describe a horrible, violent murder.

It is my claim that all of these openings, which begin radically different books, accomplish the same thing, and do so without being over-the-top or in any way anything but careful and assured. All of these writers begin as they intend to go on. The openings are not prologues, and the action of the books flows directly from these opening passages. There are no tricks, there is no bait-and-switch, there is no huge event followed by a lot of dull backstory. The tales begin where they should, and move forward from there.

Each of the above openings promise that something interesting will happen and it will be told in an interesting way. Most good openings in modern fiction show something happening. This does not have to be something violent or sinister as in the Gaiman example; it just has to be something unexpected. It can be a minor moment of the unexpected, like Nabokov's announcement that the linguistically-playful narrator is a murderer.

I have noticed that some people are putting more emphasis on (and more work into) the first page of their novel than they put into the whole rest of the book. This is a Very Bad Thing, and I'm not exactly sure what's sparked this evil and misguided trend. I think a lot of it has to do with agent websites and online "first page/sentence/paragraph" contests that put too much weight on the opening of the book. Well, anything that makes a writer think more deeply about his own writing is a good thing, but there is a lot of bullshit advice out there. There is a lot of emphasis on "hooks." Everyone seems to be ignoring the very basic idea that we should just write a solid story well. If you write a good story and start the story in the right place and begin the story the way the story goes on rather than trying to do something special and fancy at the start, your opening should mostly take care of itself.

Ironically, therefore, my advice is to ignore the advice about beginnings that you'll get from most people on the internets; just look at real books that have been published and that you love and admire. But don't just mimic an opening you like; figure out why that opening works for that particular book! Your book is not a collage; it is not a pastiche of little techniques you've gathered together from other books. Your book is a single and unified whole that you have written yourself.*

There is no perfect opening gambit that will "hook" every reader, or even most readers. What looks like brilliance to me may be boring to you, and vice versa. Your opening page(s) will either attract, repel, or leave your reader indifferent. You have no control over that. So just write the best you can, always, no matter what page of your novel you're writing.

*Unless you're David Shields, that is.


  1. Mr. Bailey, I'm not sure exactly why you chose to make this post at this time, but it was just what I needed. I was talking to someone last night about just how stressed I was over the opening of my book, and how even as I am progressing and charge on much deeper into the book, I can't shake that worry.

    Your examples help, as does your reality check. Thanks, for both.

    As to where it comes from, I'll tell you from my perspective it's all the stuff that flies around about needing to be able to hook an agent in the first 3-5 pages.

  2. I agree with Scott, the whole book needs to have the same focus on quality.

    The success of an opening sentence is made or blown by the sentence that follows it. The same goes for the first paragraph, chapter, and act.

  3. Ooo I did like this post. You, sir are an anticookiecutterarian.

  4. This post is remarkably timed, at least for me. I find myself agreeing with Scott's assessment.

    True words, well spoken, that any aspiring writer should read and consider.

    Thank you Mr. Bailey!

  5. *clapping wildly* I loathe the term "hook". Barf. It makes me shudder. I'm a serious reader, not a fish. I read entire books not just snippets. Thank you sir. Your words are wise and a much needed antidote for the poison that are "hooks".

  6. So what is the premise behind all the "bullshit" I wonder that we need to strive for perfection in our opening lines, sentences, paragraphs? Who started it?

    I get that agents are busy people and reading is their job, but why the pressure on openings when, as you say, the story should just "begin as they intend to go on".

    I've changed my beginning six times listening to the bullshit and now have finally gone back to my original start. Which is where I intended.

    It is a wicked business we are in.

  7. I really like this post. Great examples of how you don't have to do write the same way to accomplish the same thing. I agree with what Rick Daley said, you must continue with the same quality throughout the story. I there is way too much focus on hooking a reader. You grab a readers attention with quality writing and not just a good sentence.

  8. Piedmont Writter, I did the same thing. Kept changing my beginning. Over and over. Totally mangled it. Finally I chopped out of all that nonsense and just started where the story begins. I realized if someone didn't like where the story begins, it was because they didn't like the story.

    There are a number of sites, which I enjoy and appreciate, such as Evil Editor, and Ms Snark's First Victim, that hold "would you read on" or "first 250 words" or the like. At pitch conferences there are First Two Pages readings. And there are queries where you paste in the first couple pages at the end of your query.

    All of this puts tremendous emphasis on the first page. Insane emphasis.

    The problem is, although I have read bad beginnings, and although lots of newbie writers start the book in the wrong place, it is impossible for a beta reader to tell you how to fix a beginning after reading only 250 or 500 words.

    Let us imagine what commenters might say to our examples above.

    To Nabakov: "I can't really picture a scene because it's just the author talking. Try starting in medias res."

    To Tolstoy: "There's too much telling here and not enough showing. Whose PoV is this? What a mess."

    To Tolkien: "I have no idea what a hobbit is."

    To Gaiman: "I haven't connected with the character yet, so why should I care if there is a knife?"

    Etc. etc. The thing is, you can give good advice badly.

  9. Oh, well said, good sir! All this "hook" shiznit has been starting to wear on me too. At this point I just want to write the novel and see how to tweak the beginning of it so it just fits.

    Of course, I'm a tad iconoclastic, so anytime anyone says the prevailing wisdom is bullshit, I'm inclined to agree. I'm contrarian like that.

    P.S. I <3 Tara's comment about 1st graf comments. :D

  10. The other thing to keep in mind is that some absolutely amazing books have first pages that are not particularly brilliant. This whole attitude that if the author doesn't grab the reader by the throat within 2.3 words or sentences or his book gets tossed back onto the shelf is annoying and stupid. I'll go so far as to say that readers who claim that an author has only 200 or so words to grab them or they move on are behaving in a smug, arrogant and foolish manner. I blame remote controls and channel surfing for this mindset.

  11. I agree that from the standpoint of literary appreciation, as well as that of the writing craft, the notion is ridiculous.

    But when you know you need to catch an agent's eye, it is almost impossible to get out of your mind, at least for me.

  12. Nevets: My first pages are not spectacular so much as they're confident and assertive, but I have an agent. A really good agent. You just need to write the book you love and find an agent who'll love it, too. What will catch an agent's eye is going to be engaging writing. Agents are just people, you know. They reject a lot of stuff because most of the stuff they see is simply wretched. Just being an above-average writer puts you above 95% of the pack.

  13. This is probably a truly horrible thing to say, but I've said worse. I think I would benefit from a few weeks of working the slush pile and seeing just how terrible some of the competition is.

    *hangs head in shame*

  14. Also, agents request the beginning of a book, and stress "not some chapter from the middle!" This is quite understandable, if you are an agent.

    But as a reader, testing a book, I always prefer to open to a random spot in the middle. One sad deficit of Amazon preview is the inability to do this. I found one of my favorite fantasy series this way. I happened to open Book Four to a random spot and come across a hilarious scene. When I tracked down Book 1, I was disappointed and a little bored with the beginning, but I read on, knowing good stuff was to come. And I wasn't disappointed for long.

    Upon re-reading, the beginning wasn't bad either. I'm just not sure it would have caught my attention.

  15. "anticookiecutterarian"

    I love that, Jane!

  16. I'm a member of the OWW for speculative fiction writers. It's like a slush pile. A lot of stuff far from ready (except the authors know it) and a few shining gems.

  17. Thanks for the examples and for your take on what the beginning of a story should do. I hate, hate, hate all the gimmicky stuff out there that purports to hook readers.

    Valerie: I love it! I too am a reader, not a fish!

    And I think I also hate the advice to writers that first page must hook their readers. That smacks of switch-and-bait, it sounds like infomercials, it is too close to dishonesty.

    Tara Maya: Perfect examples of possible reactions.

  18. Tara: "I have no idea what a hobbit is." That's funny because it's too true!

  19. "Everyone seems to be ignoring the very basic idea that we should just write a solid story well." Here here. Story reigns supreme. Always.

    Also Jane Steen "anticookiecutterarian" fantastic word :D

  20. So, are you like sayin' that I shouldn't start my Gothic Romance with a Sci-fi space battle, or what?

  21. Chuck: Like Rick Daley says, it's all in the execution! So start your gothic romance with an exectution, I suppose. (I'm never really sure what Daley's talking about.)

  22. You always seem to provide Big Ideas that I can digest...Thanks!

  23. I'm SO glad you posted this. I've been looking over my first pages and chapters and I KNOW that my stories are starting where they need to start but it is hard to sift through the advice out there that says we have to start things out with this huge bang.
    I like to get a feel for the MC before I'm hit with something like that. Most times...

  24. Scott! I love that phrase "begin as you intend to go on". That captures some vague idea I have been grasping at for so long without being able to articulate. My best attempt was something like "It's okay to start slow" but your statement says so much more.

    Regarding the opening of Anna Karenina, I've found that another important function of that opening is to establish the omniscient point of view. In my stories, if I start off and stay too long in one POV, it catches readers off guard when I do switch.

  25. Domey: I am going to some day write a piece where I announce the POV shifts ("We will hear more of this from Jimmy...").

  26. Ah, the chatty omniscient narrator. Maybe his time to shine has come again.

  27. Begin as you intend to go on.

    I will keep this thought with me for a long time.

    Thank you, Scott.

  28. Ford Madox Ford said, "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." It was a direct response to the overworked first page. There's a blog called The Page 99 Test that does just that, posts the 99th page of a novel and let's you judge it from that and there's also a new site called page99test.com which is using the same approach to help writers promote their books.

  29. Fantastic post.

    Great novels to choose for the comparision as well.

  30. There is a person out there hawking the meme that first sentences must "hook" with "tension" -- because Maass said to.

    This person (an unpublished author) presents as an expert, has a blog that flogs AND offers to edit writers' works for a very "affordable" price.

    Total quack/hack. It's an example of the treacherous world lying in wait for new writers.

  31. Upon reading other responses to this post, I've been thinking more about this..

    I feel like I'm about to play devil's advocate, because almost everyone has responded that the emphasis placed on hooks is bad.

    I don't see why we can't both have a nice hook AND begin as we intend to continue. It's all about being true to your story (as opposed to trying to please everyone).

    It doesn't have to be an explosive scene or an awe-inspiring bit of prose. It just has to fit the story.

    Scott Westerfeld did this successfully for me in his YA novel Uglies. First sentence:

    "The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit."

    BAM! I was hooked. The sentence paints a setting and sets the tone that will carry through the first several chapters of the story. Why was I hooked? It intrigued me. It delighted me.

    I just wanted to point out that while we're all on the "consistent quality" wagon, that it doesn't rule out ALSO having a good first sentence, first paragraph, or first impression.


  32. Your post startles me! It's a funny thing to be startled by common sense.

  33. Annette, I think that's what most of the agents I've seen on-line are always recommending. "A great hook is nothing if the rest of the book is weak." (beat) "But you really need a strong hook, or we won't even look at the rest of the book." (beat) "But don't forget the rest of your book." (beat) "And especially those first three pages."

  34. Anette: See, that sentence is a hook for you, but not for me. Which I think means that Westerfeld simply wrote the book and started where he started. It's not as if the first sentence is "It was raining cat vomit" or "It was raining vomiting cats" or something over-the-top. He is, in fact, commenting on the weather, which is perversely enough something agents who play this "strong first page" game will warn you against doing.

    Part of the problem is that most agents will only see the first page or three of any MS, and will reject most of those by the end of the first sentence. So their view of novels is skewed toward that. But also remember that most of the novels in their slush piles are awful, badly-written things. My basic advice is to write a good book using strong, active, grammatically-correct prose and you won't have to play the "strong first page" game because all of your book will be engaging and readable as a byproduct of having learned to write well no matter what page you're writing.

  35. Well, mostly grammatically-correct. Grammar is part of the system of our language which makes communication possible. One fault with beginning writers' prose is often that the sentences are badly-formed and ungrammatical, which leads to the reader not actually understanding what the writer is trying to say. Or are you getting into an argument about hyphenation?

  36. This argument is one of the reasons I have stopped reading any and all agent blogs. Got my mind all messed up and risked getting my writing in all the wrong places.

  37. Nevets: There is very little to be learned about writing from agent blogs.

  38. Jim Murdoch: For some reason, blogger keeps marking your comments as spam and I have to go in and manually un-spam them. No idea what's up with that, but your comment didn't make it to this page until just a few seconds ago. I shake my fist at blogger.

    Anyway, yeah, I'd agree with FMF about the 99th page, though a more fair test (because people can fuss with their 99th or whatever number page as much as with the first page) would be to open a MS at a random spot. I haven't clicked on either link, so maybe one of those sites actually does that. But really, you know, the best test of a book is to sit down and start reading it from page 1.

  39. It's been a hectic day, so I apologize if this comes out as really cold harsh. Please forgive that.

    But I really don't see any value in substituting one sacred and holy page for another. It sounds better, but it's really the same exact problem relocated. Instead of rewriting Page 1 over and over again I'm rewriting page 99 over and over again.


  40. Well it only took me forever to get over here, but thanks for this post, Mr. Bailey. I quite enjoyed it, and having been the finalist in one of those huge first paragraph contests, I've kind of been thrown into a huge funk the past few years over first pages and paragraphs in books.

    I agree with you.

    Just start the story and go. Beginnings don't even frighten me anymore, thank heavens. It only took more 16 years to get to that point.

  41. Honestly, until I started reading internet advice from agents and supposedly agent-savvy civilians, I thought beginnings were a strong point of mine, and so had every writing class and crit group I'd been part of.

    I'm not saying they have no value for anyone, but I honestly wish I had never read a single blog from or website of an agent giving general advice.

  42. Nevets, ignore the huge typo in my comment above. It's way too early for me to be commenting on blogs. I really should be working on Monarch right now.

    I'm grateful I ran across agent blogs. I think I gained some interesting things from them about publishing, but I don't read them much anymore. Agents blogs are a good resource for newbies, especially, who have no clue what even a query is. I'd prefer they come over here, though. :)

  43. Yeah, I don't want it to sound like I think they're not helpful for anyone. I'm sure they are. I know that they messed up my writing pretty badly for a while and I've only just now gotten over it.

    I would never discourage people from visiting them, but I would encourage them to go in to them a bit more tentatively than I did.

    p.s. Yes, you probably should be. :)

  44. I will in a sec.

    But yes, I think they all have some good and valid things to say...just like we all do. But just like I wouldn't want ANYONE here over at the Lit Lab to do, no one should take everything they say 100% to heart and follow all the advice present. Bad idea. Writing and publishing are completely unique things for each individual.

    Sadly, I think it's the greatest flaw of a newbie not to realize this.


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