What makes you, as a reader, want to read a particular book? Sometimes, for me, it’s because it’s been recommended by another reader. Or I’ve read a review of it. Or my book club is reading it. But suppose you are in a bookstore or library with no reading commitments on your mind. What would make you select one book over another? What would the first paragraph or the first few sentences tell you about the book and give you enough information to want to go on?
There has been a lot written about “the first two pages” of a book: how important they are, how that’s where you capture the reader’s interest and get her to select this book above others. If the reader finds herself in a bookstore, though, she’s not going to read the first two pages. She’s probably only going to read the first paragraph. How much information do you, the writer, give to the reader in that first paragraph or two?
It’s an important question for writers because with so many books to choose from, how can you get a reader to select your book as the one to read? I looked at the first paragraphs of three mystery novels, checking out what information the first few sentences gave me, and trying to determine whether I was interested in finding out more.
I started with a book by Tom Kakonis called TREASURE COAST.
“Like most men closing in on the benchmark forty, Jim Merriman made far more promises—to others mainly, a dwindling few yet to himself—than he knew, heart of hearts, he ever intended to keep. It was a habit by now so deeply entrenched, so much a part of him, that he wore it like a second skin: Generate an earnest pledge today; effortlessly shuck it off tomorrow. Mostly it was harmless, this habitual shortfall between oath and execution, deed and good intention.”
What did those first few sentences tell me about Jim? I learned his gender and age, that forty was important to him, and that his promises, to himself and to others, were mostly empty. I surmise he’s not a hero and guess that some promise or another is going to get him in trouble. I don’t know where the story is based, and I don’t know anything more about Jim except that he’s relatively honest about his failings.
How about Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache novel, THE CRUELEST MONTH?
“Kneeling in the fragrant moist grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper. Wiping a strand of hair from her face, she smeared bits of grass, mud and some other brown stuff that might not be mud into her tangled hair. All around, villagers wandered with their baskets of brightly colored eggs, looking for the perfect hiding place.”
This is a charming portrait of a village preparing for an Easter egg hunt, centering on one woman, Clara Morrow, about whom we know only that she doesn’t pay a lot of attention to her appearance. But what’s this: “Clara Morrow [. . .] thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper”. What’s that got to do with hiding eggs for the Easter egg hunt? Penny has thrown a scary mystery element into the midst of a bucolic village festival. Do I want to continue? You bet I do. I want to find out about raising the dead.
In Julia Spencer-Fleming’s I SHALL NOT WANT, the author begins in the middle of events.
“When she saw the glint of the revolver barrel through the broken glass in the window, Hadley Knox thought, I’m going to die for sixteen bucks an hour. Sixteen bucks an hour, medical, and dental. She dove behind her squad car as the thing went off, a monstrous thunderclap that rolled on and on across green-gold fields of hay. The bullet smacked into the maple tree she had parked under with a meaty thud, showering her in wet, raw splinters.”
Spencer-Fleming has told us quite a lot about Hadley Knox. She’s a cop and doesn’t make much money, although she has benefits. Right now she’s terrified because someone is trying to kill her, and she’s not sure the money is worth the danger. The setting is a country farm in late spring or summer. We’re in the middle of the story. Events have already occurred that have brought Hadley Knox to this position. Am I interested in finding out what happened before and what will happen in the future? Probably.
My own first paragraph in my current WIP goes like this:
“The day Captain Bradley disappeared was ordinary—at least it seemed like that to Andi Battaglia when she arrived at the station just before eight that morning. Halloween had come and gone with all its craziness, crazy at least as far as police were concerned. Christmas decorations had arrived in the Burgess Beach stores in mid-October, even earlier than the year before, and with the temperature hovering in the low nineties, Andi was in no mood for holiday cheer.”
What does the reader learn from this? Andi Battaglia is a cop. Someone disappears, and we assume he is Andi’s boss. Andi is feeling a bit grouchy about holidays. It’s November, but because the weather is in the nineties, we know the setting is tropical. Not nearly as attention getting as Penny’s or Spencer-Fleming’s beginnings. Something to work on, so that hypothetical reader will choose Carole Sojka’s book when browsing.
This was an interesting exercise for me. Have you tried it with your own WIP?