Writing classes and journal articles and agent/editor webinars these days emphasize the importance of making a huge splash on the first page – even the first paragraph, the first sentence – for any novel to be successful. That approach, perhaps, derives from the unfortunate truth that many readers, particularly younger readers, have the attention span of a gnat. If you don’t grab them immediately, they will toss the book aside, never to pick it up again. At least, that is the theory.
Yet so many very successful books – including most of the classics – get off to a more leisurely start, laying building blocks one at a time, sometimes before you have any idea what the book will be about (that is, if you haven’t read the blurb on the back of the book – or are limiting your reading to e-books, which don’t have a back-of-the-book blurb for you to read).
I will admit, as a teen, many of the classic novels we were required to read seemed boring at the outset . Truth is, for more required reading than I could admit at the time (some 40+ years ago), I simply gave up and bought the Cliff Notes version. If my teachers were on to me, they never said a word, and I never received less than an A in high school or college English or Literature classes. Of course, that was pre-computer age and smart phones and texting and instant gratification and cheap electronic books. If those novels were slow for me, I can imagine how they seem to youth of today. So perhaps if you are directing your writing at that youthful age group, there is something to the advice.
However, some of the best stories and best written books I have read in recent years had slow starts. A prime example is the trilogy of the immensely successful Stieg Larsson books. You had to wade through 50-100 pages before the stories became so riveting you couldn’t put them down.
And currently I am reading a book by an author I’ve never read, Elizabeth Haynes, Into The Darkest Corner. It was so slow and disjointed for the first couple of chapters (much of which were transcripts from a trial), I almost set it aside. But I have a bit of an obsession about reading every book I start (maybe a delayed reaction to my high school habit of almost never finishing those books). And at the time I had nothing else on my Kindle that I hadn’t read. So I plowed on.
I hope I don’t offend anyone if I use a sexual analogy. A well-written book that eases you into the story and connects you with the main characters is a bit like long and gentle foreplay that takes you on a gradual ascent and builds momentum so subtly you barely know it is happening. And then you reach a point of no return and shazam! An ending/climax so powerful it leaves you weak as a kitten, some perverse part of you wishing it could have gone on forever.
Admittedly, there is a risk to this approach, particularly if you are not an established, traditionally published author. It is far too easy for an agent or editor, faced with a mountain of manuscripts, to toss aside one that doesn’t grab her/him with the first paragraph.
But there is something to be said for slow starts in the hands of a master storyteller. This book could have been just another tedious read, had Ms. Haynes not been so masterful about drawing you in. Most of us need to work not just on finding ways to make our stories bound out of the gate, but also honing our craft to a level that holds readers long past the big bang opening – or skipping that entirely if you are brave and skilled enough to go that route.
While I’m working on my new book, Transition, if you haven’t already read Autumn Colors or In Her Mother’s Shoes, I invite you to check them out on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or through the Apple Store. If you have read either or both and liked them, a review on any of the book sites would be appreciated!