It's the fourth and final Sunday of the month, which means it's time for some writing-related musings. And where better to begin than at the beginning?
Conventional wisdom tells us that every book must open with a hook. It tells us that readers want to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and thrown straight into the action. It tells us that the first page is the most important one, and if the writer gets it wrong then the book is doomed. But in this case, does conventional wisdom really know what it's talking about?
Consider the oh-so-vital hook. A clever and well-crafted first line can indeed be a delightful thing. But does my decision on whether or not to keep reading depend solely on the opening sentence? No. Does that sentence have to contain something particularly unique or witty or nerve-racking in order for me to consider buying the book? No. And have I on occasion been put off by the overt hookiness of a first sentence – the feeling that I'm being manipulated by a writer who's all too aware of the conventional wisdom? Yes.
Of course, this last one may just be a result of writing myself and thereby having some familiarity with the tricks of the trade (though it could be argued that anything a reader is actively aware of a writer doing, craft-wise, is a failure of storytelling). But I'm pretty sure that as long as there's nothing glaringly wrong with the opening line, most people will read on – assuming they were interested enough in the book's cover or description or great reviews to pick it up in the first place.
And thus to being thrown straight into the action. The obvious tension here is between excitement and emotional investment. If a book opens with a man being chased by a big scary monster, well, big deal. It doesn't matter to me if an anonymous, faceless person gets eaten by a monster. But if the book opens with Bob, the last survivor of a plague that turns people into monsters, racing to escape the monster pack and get the cure to his infected daughter before she can be turned too … that's very different. Action is only gripping when it's happening to someone we have a reason to care about.
Take The Hunger Games, for instance. If it were to start where the 'action' starts, it would probably start with the reaping ceremony. But we only care that Prim's name is called at the end of Chapter 1 because we've seen how much she means to Katniss – and over the preceding chapter, we've already started to care about Katniss. Of course, if The Hunger Games spent its first ten chapters bringing Katniss to complete and detailed emotional life without anything actually happening, that would be no good either. It's the balance between emotion and action that makes it work.
This leads indirectly to the issue of the first page, because my feeling is that it's not so much the first page as the first chapter that matters. The first page tells you whether the author is able to write. The first chapter tells you whether you're actually enjoying it or not. And these days, with 'look inside' and 'try a sample', readers don't have to guess whether they'll like a book based on the cover and a quick glance through. They can read that whole first chapter before they part with their money.
I'll award conventional wisdom one out of three, here, in that the first page is pretty crucial. If it contains loads of errors or doesn't make sense or is just plain boring, that's it – reader gone. But it doesn't have to be jampacked with action and clever concepts, either … or at least, insofar as the word 'action' is taken literally. Because what the start of a book does need, apart from clean writing and good flow and all the other things that go without saying, is emotional action – and this is where that all-important reader investment comes in. The start of your book could just be a woman making a cup of tea and thinking about her day, but if you can make me care about her, I'll keep reading. Having a central character that a reader can instantly relate to is the biggest hook of all.