Taking Time

Three pages. Maybe two tops. That’s really all it takes to know if you have a book you can settle into for a great read.

Now, sometimes, the story does disappoint beyond that great opening chapter. But usually that’s not the case. Which is why most folks read back cover copy and then the first couple of pages—it’s enough to know if that’s what’ll satisfy your reading taste.

In a way, it’s a lot like good food—you know with just a bite or two if that brownie is rich enough, the soup is well seasoned, or if the fish is done to perfection. A book’s the same. A good story has confidence—it starts where it needs to.

That’s something I see folks missing a lot of the times in manuscripts that are just not ready for publication (or contests, even). Which means, if you feel you need someone to read twenty pages to get to the good stuff in your story, you need to cut nineteen pages. The good stuff should be on page one.

This does not mean you need to open with action—although action is nice. So is dialogue. But that may not be the right opening for your story.

A story—a good one—opens in a pace that is right for the story. This means if the book is an action story, action is a good way to open. But if the book is more of a character study, it’s nice to open a little slower and with those characters. A romance really needs to open with the romance front and center; a historical needs to open and get the reader into that world.

This is where world building—the right details—matters. The right details—meaning not so many you overwhelm, but enough to present a convincing world—will bring the reader into the setting, and into the story.

The right character viewpoint does the same thing—a sympathetic character helps to pull the reader into the story.

And this is where I think inexperienced writers go wrong. It’s too easy to get caught up in the idea that “oh, I have to open with a bang and keep the pace going.” Not necessarily. A strong opening is often one that has confidence—confidence enough to take time enough to set up the world and the characters and get the reader involved with each.

The best advice I can give to anyone struggling with openings is to sit down with ten current and favorite books. Read only the first two or three pages. You’ll see strong openings with writers who are confident in their characters and their stories—and you’ll see writers who do not make the reader wait for twenty pages to get to the good stuff.

Next time you feel like you need someone to read more of your story to get to the good stuff stop and rethink this. Be bold and confident—and cut those pages so the reader starts with the good stuff. Take the time to weave in details to make the world vivid and the characters sympathetic.  And then take even more time to rewrite and revise and make those opening pages great.

Shannon Donnelly

Now at Book View Cafe:

A Dangerous Compromise

A Compromising Situation

Under the Kissing Bough



Taking Time — 4 Comments

  1. Agreed! I know within two or three pages whether I’ll want to finish a book, and these days I have no patience for poorly-written anything. I don’t understand people who say, “Oh, but it’s just fantastic after chapter ten. You have to stick with it.” (Several people said this about THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO when I put it down as unreadable.)

    No, I don’t have to stick with it. If it was great in chapter ten, the author should have started in chapter ten.

  2. I tell my pupils that they are in competition with everything else in modern life, for their reader’s attention. The phone, email, twitters, Facebook, other books, David Letterman, everything. You have to grab your reader’s shirt collar, and twist.

  3. disagree- many times have started a book and not been able to get past the first couple of pages-put it down.may pick it up later in a different mood and get sucked right in. I admit , however, that i’ve tried to read moby dick four or five times, getting just a little farther each time.

    • Mood does matter, but even if the flavor is not right, you still know if you want to give a book a second chance.

      Moby Dick, however, isn’t even on my first read — If I’m going to indulge in Victorians it’s gong to be Dickens, Poe or Wilkie.