novel beginnings

Getting to know a new book

When you begin reading a book, what do you need in the first few pages (or paragraphs, or sentences) to get you to keep reading?

I finished reading Gillian Flynn‘s Gone Girl the other day. It’s a highly acclaimed, very popular book and was recommended to me by several people whose opinions I trust. I found the opening intriguing, right from the first sentence: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” (And, of course, those opening three paragraphs take on a totally different tone after having read the book.)

Yet I had a hard time getting into it at first.

For me, this is not unusual. Looking over the list of books I’ve read recently, I see my pattern is the same:

1) I start out with a book that has been recommended to me in one way or another.

2) I read the first few pages one night just before bed.

3) I may read a few more pages the next night.

4) Maybe a few more pages the next night.

5) I stop reading for, like, a week.

6) I pick up the book again, trying to remember what was happening when I left off.

7) I finally get into the book and read like crazy to the end in a day or two.

Starting a new book, for me, is a ton of work. Just like it’s work to get to know a new friend or colleague, it’s work to get to know a new character. It’s work to get to know a new world, especially if the world is different from this one (and I often read fantasy/science fiction). I have to find something very valuable in the beginning of a book to make me want to do that work.

For me, that something is usually the quality of the prose itself. I felt right from the start of Gone Girl that Gillian Flynn is skilled with words, and that gave me faith that she would also be skilled with story. It helps to have had the book recommended because that tells me others have found the story worth reading to the end.

The other thing that will keep me reading is if I feel I’m about to read something truly original. Even if I’m reading a story with a “traditional” or “genre formula” plot, if something in the beginning makes me feel I’ve never read something quite like this before, I’ll keep going.

In how-to books and classes on writing, writers can find so many “rules” for writing a good opening: posing a question, a strong character’s voice, an in medias res action sequence, etc. For me, these things can be important, not so much to get me to the end of the book, but to get me more quickly over that hump of work in the beginning. But I won’t bother with the hump unless I am already hooked by the prose and the originality.

For the record, I loved (despite being disturbed by) Gone Girl. I bought it at the bookstore because it was recommended to me, and I can whole-heartedly recommend it to you. :)

 

 

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Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic.

— Tim Noakes