In this age when readers download the first pages of a book, nothing is more important for authors than a strong opening.
Last night, desperate for a good book to read, I browsed on Amazon for half an hour and downloaded five book samples to my iPad. Three of these books were written by famous authors, and each had over 200 five-star reviews, which helped me decide what books to consider. I truly appreciate folks who read a book and then make time to tell others all about it. However, I seem to be more demanding than the average reviewer. I’m careful about how I spend my precious reading time, but if an author can grab me with the first few pages I’ll buy the book and read to the end.
Of the five books I considered last night, only one made the cut. James Patterson is a perennial favorite, but he lost me with the opening of Private LA, published this month. The book opens with four surfers on the beach, where nothing happens except a boring conversation and too much explaining by the author. When does the actual story begin? I have no idea, because I deleted the sample after reading three pages.
Then I tried a new book by JD Robb: Concealed in Death. This book opens with an incredibly boring explanation of why one character decided to purchase an old building. I slogged through five pages before deleting this one.
What’s up with these famous, successful, and talented authors? They should know better. Yet, their books always get rave reviews.
The fourth book I opened was a delightful surprise: Come Home by Lisa Scottoline, published in 2012. This story opens with action, suspense, and quick dialogue. The first few pages are filled with the short, choppy conversation of people in distress. Scottoline lets dialogue carry the story while she seamlessly adds telling details. The actual murder mystery doesn’t surface until about page ten, but so what? I was already attached to Lisa’s characters. She hooked me by page three, where I stopped reading long enough to purchase the book. When I finish this one, I’ll download samples of her other books.
Here’s my theory on grand openings: I believe established authors can get away with weak openings, because they already have fans who will read anything they write. Those of us who aren’t famous need to follow the rules for strong opening scenes:
- A compelling hook to grab attention. Cut those long, boring passages that describe the scenery and what someone is doing.
- At least one character readers can relate to.
- Conflict, tension, and suspense. Please!
- A strong hint that things are going to get much worse before they get better.
- Something must be at stake.
“. . .All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”
And here’s a toast to more grand openings for all of us!