on February 16, 2006

Periodically, discussions on writers loops come around to hooking an agent . . . or an editor . . . or a reader. The “high-concept” premise is thrown out as something to aspire to: explain your story in 25 words or less using ideas and images readily understood by the average buyer.

But when it comes down to the actual book–and getting readers invested into the story–it’s the first couple pages that often make the difference.

Sol Stein said in Stein on Writing:

Some years ago I was involved in an informal study of the behavior of lunch-hour browsers in mid-Manhattan bookstores. In the fiction section, the most common pattern was for the browser to read the front flap of the book’s jacket and then go to page one. No browser went beyond page three before either taking the book to the cashier or putting the book down and picking up another to sample.


I happen to agree with Stein on this one. So does Miss Snark. I can’t find the exact post on her blog, but a month or so ago she said that she generally gives a book 5-10 pages to draw her in. Noah Lukeman has his theory (and book) about the “first five pages” and the list goes on.

The market is competitive. You need every edge you can get. You have the covers, you have the title, you have an enticing blurb. Most of which you have little or no control over.

You have control over the first three pages. The first paragraph. The first line.

So as an experiment, I pulled a bunch of books off my shelf to see how the big guns handle their openings.

Now because most of my books are in the suspense and mystery genre, the readers of this blog might already have read these. I’m not going to tell you the author, but I’d be interested in which book you’d be most apt to read based on the opening alone.

1) The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective. Take right now, for instance. (James Patterson, MAXIMUM RIDE)

2) I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory. (Dashiell Hammett, THE THIN MAN)

3) The man in the holding cell loosened his tie, tossed his rumpled suit coat into a corner, and stretched out on the hard plastic bench. The woman in the facing cell slipped out of her glen plaid jacket, folded it carefully across an arm, and began pacing. (Paul Levine, SOLOMON VS LORD)

4) The event that came to be known as The Pulse began at 3:03 p.m. , eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1. The term was a misnomer, of course, but within ten hours of the event, most of the scientists capable of pointing this out were either dead or insane. The name hardly mattered, in any case. What mattered was the effect. (Stephen King, THE CELL)

5) With draft beer and a smile, Ned Pearsall raised a toast to his deceased neighbor, Henry Friddle, whose death greatly pleased him. (Dean Koontz, VELOCITY)

6) Death was not taking a holiday. New York may have been decked out in its glitter and glamour, madly festooned in December of 2059, but Santa Claus was dead. And a couple of his elves weren’t looking so good. (JD Robb, MEMORY IN DEATH)

7) When does murder begin? With the pull of a trigger? With the formation of a motive? Or does it begin long before, when a child swallows more pain than love and is forever changed? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Or perhaps it matters more than everything else. (Greg Isles, BLOOD MEMORY)

Pick one. Which would you read first?