On the Beginning

I totally stole this image from Marc Johns book, Serious Drawings. You should check it out. It has pictures and everything.

While my wife and I were wrapping presents last night I happened to glance at the first few pages of a book she’s getting for her sister called City of Bones. Now, at the time, I had no idea what the book was about; I hadn’t read the synopsis on the back cover, I hadn’t looked up the Amazon reviews to see what other people were saying about it; all I had to go on was those first few pages.  And I hated it.

Here are the first few lines from the book:

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest. He stared down at the boy in the red zip-up jacket and shook his shaved head. “You can’t bring that thing in here.”

The fifty or so teenagers in line outside the Pandemonium Club leaned forward to eavesdrop. It was a long wait to get into the all-ages club, especially on a Sunday, and not much generally happened in line. The bouncers were fierce and would come down instantly on anyone who looked like they were going to start trouble. Fifteen-year-old Clary Fray, standing in line with her best friend, Simon, leaned forward along with everyone else, hoping for some excitement.

“Aw, come on.” The kid hoisted the thing up over his head. It looked like a wooden beam, pointed at one end. “It’s part of my costume.”

The bouncer raised an eyebrow. “Which is what?”

The boy grinned. He was normal-enough-looking, Clary thought, for Pandemonium. He had electric blue dyed hair that stuck up around his head like the tendrils of a startled octopus, but no elaborate facial tattoos or big metal bars through his ears or lips. “I’m a vampire hunter.” He pushed down on the wooden thing. It bent as easily as a blade of grass bending sideways. “It’s fake. Foam rubber. See?”

What’s wrong with this picture?  Well first, it’s not that well structured.  The conversation between the bouncer and the kid at the door has potential to be interesting, but the book cuts that off after one line of dialog to give us an infodump about the Pandemonium all ages club, and how boring the line was.  Breaking up the conversation like that turned me off to this story like a switch.

The second thing wrong with this opening, is that it doesn’t have anything to do with the main character.  I mean it’s fine if you want to start your story with some outside event that will affect your main character later, but don’t have your main character standing there just off camera watching these two yahoos talk.  In my opinion a much better opening would have gone something like this:

“What’s going on up there?” Clary asked.

Simon turned his head.  “What? Where?”

“Up there. At the head of the line” Clary said, pointing.  “Looks like some kid’s trying to get in to the club with a…well it looks like a big spike.”

“Probably just foam rubber,” Simon said.  “You’d be amazed how realistic they can make those things.  I was down at the costume shop-”

“He let him in,” Clary interrupted.

I’ll grant you it’s still not the greatest scene in the world, but at least we have some involvement from our main character.  And the dialog conveys most of the information without being too heavy on the exposition.

The last thing that ticks me off about this scene is…well it’s people standing in line.  I mean really?  Unless a mushroom cloud is about to appear on the dark horizon, I do not care about the line you are standing in.  The line you are standing in is not interesting.  And I know every book doesn’t have to start with a bang, but give me something that’s going to clue me in about the tone of your story.  People standing in line does not portend anything but boredom.

Now that I’ve throughly vented my frustration on City of Bones let’s take a look at a book that gets it right, Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann.

“He was healthy yesterday,” said Maude. Her ears twitched nervously.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” pointed out Sir Ritchfield, the oldest ram in the flock. “He didn’t die of an illness. Spades are not an illness.”

The shepherd was lying in the green Irish grass beside the hay barn, not far from the path through the fields. He didn’t move. A single crow had settled on his woolly Norwegian sweater and was studying his internal arrangements with professional interest. Beside the crow sat a very happy rabbit. Rather farther off, close to the edge of the cliff, the sheep were holding a meeting.

I found this book on my honeymoon.  Actually my wife found it.  We were in a bookstore, and she brought it up to me and asked me what I thought.  I opened the book, looked at the first few lines, and snapped it shut again.  “This book is awesome,” I said.  She thought I was being sarcastic at first, but I was dead serious.  I knew I had to own that book, and just from reading the first few words.

What does it get right?  Well first, the structure of the opening is genius.  The first few lines of dialog are perfect.  They convey tons of information in very little space.  We know that the shepherd is dead.  We know that a spade was the cause of his death.   We know quite a bit about the sheep and how they see the world.  We know a lot about the tone of the story.  All from two lines of dialog.  Then we’re given a broader description of the scene.

And the opening scene is actually about the sheep who are going to star in the rest of this story.  It’s not told from the point of view of the crow or the rabbit, because they don’t matter.  The sheep matter, and we get a feel for what they’re like right from the beginning.

Finally, something interesting has happened here.  A shepherd has been stabbed in the gut with a spade, and his sheep are talking amongst themselves about it.  A murder is a great way to start your story.  A murder being discussed by sheep?  That’s a fantastic way to start your story.

Why am I harping on this?  Because beginnings matter.  Think about it.  If someone is going to buy your book, they’re probably going to thumb through the first few pages.  Put something interesting there.  If only one interesting thing happens in your book, put it on the first page, because I for one am not going to slog through 78 pages of tripe to get to the good part.  On the other hand, if you put something interesting at the beginning and rest of your book is terrible, the person in the bookstore won’t know that until he gets home and curls up in bed with it.

I’m not trying to encourage bad writing, but I am trying to say that you need to hook your readers.  It doesn’t have to be gimmicky, but it ought to be interesting. Because if you can’t make the first page interesting, how can I trust that the rest will be any better?

3 responses to “On the Beginning

  1. I totally agree that the first opening paragraphs were not interesting at all. I was left more confused than anything else. Who’s important? The kid arguing with the bouncer? Or wait, it’s Clary Fray, who the author took the time out to name. But then, why is the kid up front mentioned in the first lines?

    I know how hard it is to hook a reader in the first opening paragraphs (lord knows I’ve revised mine a million times). But those paragraphs will determine if a reader will keep reading, or put the book down.

    • Precisely. And if there is something on the first page that confuses me, how can I trust the rest of the book won’t be muddled up as well?
      Thanks for the comment.

  2. “Spades are not an illness”

    I laughed. Hard.

    That was a very awesome opening, I agree. And yeah, the opening will either make you read the rest of the book, or make you put it down and never pick it up again.

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