The first page matters

We are often told this and it is surely true. I started reading a new book a few weeks ago and the first page nearly put me off. The scene was London, not now but in the past as portrayed in many a Sherlock Holmes film – mist swirling everywhere, people emerging out of it and disappearing into it. But a book is not a film, we cannot see the mist, so we have to be told it is misty. In this case, to accomplish this, the author uses the word ‘mist’ four times in the relatively short first paragraph and, just in case we missed it, once more in the second. A word can be repeated deliberately, for rhetorical effect, but this was not the impression I had here.

Then we have ‘Darkness … pooling’ and, a few lines later, ‘blood pooling’. Quite a lot of pooling going on.

And all this on an opening page heavy with adjectives. I could undertake a statistical analysis, but life is too short.

In fact the book is good. The characters are interesting and the narrative gripping. But writing style matters too. However, style is difficult to pin down: what appeals to some may not to others.  So some may read this opening page and love it.

But I can say that this particular  opening page does not give an accurate impression of what is to come. The repetition drops off, the adjective count (with a few exceptions) drops off too, and dialogue makes a welcome entrance. As does the author’s wry take on the events he is narrating.

So anyone put off by the opening of this book would be missing out on a good read. Which would be a pity. Prospective buyers can check out the first few pages of most books online: if they are put off they will not buy. Is that what authors want? Probably not.


4 thoughts on “The first page matters

  1. Yes Rod, well put. I could not put down War and Peace. Devoured every word some sixty years ago. I recently picked it up again and it drove me to sleep. One more horse-carriage entering St Petersburg and I would smack the book.
    But with Patrick White, a different tale. Yet, many claim his words are turgid, heavy with dread and impossible to get past the first sentence. I can still open his books at any page and love it.
    It seems that words have a life on their own and change as they mature and get absorbed in the present.

  2. Words do have lives of their own, though from your description here it may that it is you who have changed rather than the words. The marginally older Gerard is not so in tune with War and Peace as the young Gerard was. For some reason I have not read Patrick White, but there may still be time to put that right.

  3. Interesting. We have been looking at opening lines on the writing course I am attending. We happily admired the brilliant, mostly well-known, examples the course tutor provided, but when we went home and looked at our favourite books, we found that very few of them had breathtaking openings. Over the last few years i have been led to believe that if the first few words of your book do not grab, you can kiss your readers goodbye. Actually scrub that, it’s not the readers, it’s the agents and publishers who demand the knockout openings. I have to confess, thug, that I have been brainwashed now and might well put down a book that opened as you have described.

  4. It seems that in your course you have been hit by one of the prevailing conventional wisdoms. I totally agree with you about who actually demand knockout openings – the agents and publishers. This may be more true in some genres than others – I imagine they look for it most in crime – but they want to be grabbed. Sneaking up on them is no longer an option. They don’t have the time for that.

    I think we should turn to crime.
    ‘When I tripped over Bertha’s body in the library I did not expect to be hit from behind by a coconut.’

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