Book Beginnings

How a book begins is crucial. The first few pages determine whether a reader will continue reading or move on to a new book. After reading lots, I have discovered certain things that repel me from a book and certain things that attract me to a book.

For the repellents, firstly, I don’t like being tricked in the first few pages. One way to trick the reader I have come across include starting with a dream sequence. This method is rather deceitful. When I pick up a book, I don’t want to see the author waste paper on a dream that the main character may be having. Rather, I’d like to be introduced to the character by seeing him do something. For example, briefly show me his daily life and what makes him unique.

What’s interesting about this second repellent is that it seems to be popular writing advice or perhaps an extreme version of popular writing advice. Indeed, in a critique of my writing, an author who employs this method in one of his books told me a version of this popular advice (and I couldn’t bring myself to read the rest of his book because of it). This method is to start with something eye-catching for the reader. While there is nothing wrong with this, there is an extreme version where the author jumps right into the book (this often involves starting out with a fight). It’s jarring and confusing for the reader to suddenly not know any setting of characters and to be shoved straight into the thick of things.

My current theory is that authors who employ these tactics are nervous or self-conscious about their writing. Therefore, they feel like they can’t introduce it honestly: they are afraid that the reader won’t be interested in what they actually have to write. I may be wrong. But I do believe that all writers get nervous on whether people will like what they have to write. However, shouldn’t the author want people who read their work to genuinely like their work? And using one of these tactics may turn away readers who may be otherwise fascinated with the author’s writing.

For the attractor, when the author eases the reader into the story helps. This is mainly done by introducing the reader to the characters and the setting. Take Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling tells us about the Dursleys and sets the stage by showing the reader smalls bits of magic. She also uses the Dursleys as lens. We, as (to use Rowling’s term) Muggles, get our taste of this new universe in small doses and through the eyes of Muggles. While this way worked well for Rowling, I do think that introducing the main characters first works best. This way the reader doesn’t have to readjust after one or two chapters into the book.

I read once that readers pick up and decide to read your book because of the plot, and they continue to read because of your characters (I read this in Matt Bird’s The Secrets of Story, specifically, on page seventeen). So, what I think is truly key is to introduce your characters. What are their mannerism? What is their personality? And (to a perhaps lesser extent) what do they look like? All in all, who are they and why should the reader care about them?

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