I’ve seen a lot going around the blogosphere recently about beginnings; what with the Hooker/Hanger Blogfest and some bloggers recently revealing their own personal experiences with writing beginnings, I thought I’d address that issue today.
What is it that keeps us reading? I think there are many reasons, and I would love to hear your thoughts as to what keeps you reading.
There is something to be said for a powerful first line. A hook. We all want to open a book and straight away be impressed. An author’s job is to get the reader to read. You have a much better chance at that if you begin well. An example of a somewhat unforgettable first line I’ve encountered comes from Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies:
‘The early summer sky was the colour of cat vomit’.
It’s unusual. It’s jarring. It’s a little funny. We also get a hint of the protagonist’s emotions – you certainly don’t describe anything as ‘cat vomit’ if you’re in a happy mood, so instantly we’re aware there’s some sort of conflict or issue which might be impacting the protagonist. It’s a little outside the box, but personally I think it works.
But saying that, I don’t think that the first line is the be-all and end-all. I wouldn’t put down a book just because I didn’t think the first line was good enough. So let’s focus on the first couple of paragraphs. They might give you an insight into setting, character dynamic, conflict. They should more than anything entice you to read more. A good example of this, in my eyes, is the first two paragraphs from Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood which I finished reading last week:
‘In the early morning Toby climbs up to the rooftop to watch the sunrise. She uses a mop handle for balance: the elevator stopped working some time ago and the back stairs are slick with damp, and if she slips and topples there won’t be anyone to pick her up.
As the first heat hits, mist rises from among the swatch of trees between her and the derelict city. The air smells faintly of burning, a smell of caramel and tar and rancid barbeques, and the ashy but greasy smell of a garbage-dump fire after it’s been raining. The abandoned towers in the distance are like the coral of an ancient reef – bleached and colourless, devoid of life’.
We as a reader get so much from these first two paragraphs. We know that Toby is alone in a decaying building. We get a feeling for the setting; Atwood engages are senses; we know that something isn’t right in this world, a world which has already been depicted as ‘devoid of life’. There may not be conflict or action, but we get a sense of this broken world which has yet to be explained to us, and that alone is what keeps me reading.
Sometimes I’ll make it all the way through the first chapter without making a judgement as to whether I want to continue reading or not. Readers aren’t bought on the first page – they have to be held. There’s nothing to stop a reader putting down a book, no matter how far along they are – I know I’ve put down books when I’ve been a quarter of the way, half way, and even three quarters of the way through. If they stop enticing me, I’m gone. I’ll find something new to read. But if the plot is engaging, if I like the characters, if the conflict is good, if the book is well written, I’ll keep reading. It only takes a couple of these things to be off, and they can lose me as a reader.
So tell me. What keeps you reading? Or conversely, what makes you stop reading a book? I’d love to hear your thoughts.