You Had Me At … Some Point

I did a panel some years ago during a convention at Harvard. The topic was ‘You had me at hello: how to hook the reader on page 1″. I am afraid I was a tad contrarian.

I suggested, with examples, that we’ve come to wildly over-obsess with desperate, arm-waving ‘look at me’ openings. That books have taken on some of the ‘gotcha’ thinking of summer blockbuster films. The Dan Brown kill-a-person-in-the-opener style.

I suggested that this sort of beginning can’t help but create a tone, style, a set of expectations in a reader for what will follow. That it closes off access to different notes and nuances, and any real consideration (in the writing and the reading) of what I have always called the ‘architecture’ of a book.

Of course you want to draw in – and keep – a reader. Being discarded is, we might agree, a bad fate for a book. But there are a myriad of ways to seduce, and a myriad of reader types, and changing moods and desires in a given reader. People can and do read a techno-thriller and then a book by Jane Gardam or an Alice Munro short story. We aren’t all locked into a single mode of enjoying art.

Given that, I argued (and still do, obviously) the opening of a work needs to be guided by the needs of that work. A long, panoramic book (think Tolkien, or Tolstoy) will require a different immersion, a slower one usually, than a 300 page serial killer novel or paranormal romance.

We’re an impatient society. I joke about the ‘what have you done for me lately’ thing (I think I used it last post here, even) in an age built around dodging boredom via texting and on-demand tv and fast-forwarding. Or six second videos online. But the pleasures of a novel aren’t always or inherently best explored or developed at breakneck speed. We can enjoy vodka shots or chugging beer and also sipping something rare and good, no?

I was put in mind of all this while reading a short, sweet online review of Under Heaven, wherein the blogger talked about truly loving the book after she got through the ‘slow opening’ and she urged her readers to push through that opening. Obviously, I’m pleased, it was a lovely comment, but it left me with some thoughts along the lines of what you see here, and a little more.

One is that, as it happens, there were a lot of readers and reviewers of Under Heaven who thought the opening was their favourite (or one of them) of all my works, or even of books they’d read. It is a very particular, mood-shaping start, a set up for a story that moves a character from extreme solitude to a thronged, dangerous urban space. It was also meant to lay in many of the themes of the novel and a particular set of values in the culture, and establish a couple of the ultimately central mysteries and conflicts. (I’m being careful not to give details.)

One obvious point here is a variant of one I’ve made before: about dialogue not monologue, readers and authors. How one person’s great action scene is another’s too violent one. One reader’s too slow opening is another’s perfect, lyric immersion into ‘another world and time’.

The other point is a fine-tuning of the one I mentioned above: a very long novel that intends to draw the reader in to a very different setting might not be best served by breakneck speed out the gate or a too-heated come-hither. It might: it can be done, alnost anything can be done with enough talent, but I do believe there are more ways of luring the hapless reader (!) into the devious author’s castle than a flamboyant gotcha on page one.

Context matters, so does purpose. We use the words novel or fiction to cover a really wide range of writing, if you think about it. And the pursuit of excellence isn’t always the same as the pursuit of eyeballs. Sometimes you want both, but the methods aren’t always so obvious as gotcha.

Put it another way: we get gotten by many different things in our lives, in many different ways. Books are no different.


One thought on “You Had Me At … Some Point

  1. Hooking me at page one, for me, doesn’t actually mean that I want a ‘Dan Brown’ kill a person in the opening scene’ scenario. For me, it’s being drawn into the book by the author’s writing style; the prose, and yes, in some cases, a big bang of an opening. However, if there’s no Dan Brown scenario, it doesn’t bother me; if the writing isn’t there, I will not be interested. Example: I love George R. R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon – they hooked me in the first couple pages. I love Harry Potter, but I could not get into A Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowlings. Maybe a better example is Stephen King. I love all his books that deal, even peripherally with the Dark Tower series; but there are many of his other, very popular books that I do not like – Dreamcatcher for one, Under the Dome for another. So, for me, it’s the writing that hooks me, not necessarily the scenario that starts the book.

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