What makes a good beginning for a book? This is undeniably the crucial part of the book where the author’s talent needs to shine and he or she needs to draw you in so that you’ll bother reading the rest of the book. I usually know whether or not I want to read the rest of the book by the end of the first chapter. So what makes a good beginning?
Here’s what I like:
- A problem – You’d think I have enough of those in my life, but for me to become interested in a book, I have to discover why the author wrote it and darn quick. If the first five chapters of a book give no hint as to why the characters do what they do, I lose interest. It can even be a hint of a problem and it will draw me in.
- A character to care about – If your book is about a crack team of accountants on their journey through the 2010 tax season, but you have a great character whose story interests me, I might not put the book down. I have to care about the character too. Is she lonely? Is he in love? The character is tied in very closely with the problem. A character with no problems is not very interesting.
- An interesting setting – It’s possible to have a character with a problem who starts out the book in a concrete cell. The setting isn’t just the location, but the situation. Why is your character in a cell? What does he or she feel about being in a cell? What are they going to do about it? An accountant at a desk with a suburban couple’s tax return to finish isn’t very exciting. An accountant at a desk in the bowels of hell with a couple’s tax return to finish might be pretty fantastic. If your character is boring and your problem is uninspiring, but your setting is a surprise, the book just might be awesome. If you have all three, you have a party!
- Great writing – OK, duh. But seriously, the best writing goes at the beginning. Often writers make a Prologue, taking a little snippet of the book out of the middle and putting it at the beginning so that you can see the great writing. Showing us the most awesomeness at the beginning makes us want to see more.
Things I don’t like:
Note: There are always exceptions to these. If done right, any beginning can be great.
- Extensive Histories – I read fiction mostly and knowing that I am plowing through 5,000 years of history for a culture that is imaginary makes me quickly shut the book (or click the back button in the Kindle app). I firmly believe that imaginary history should be meted out on a need-to-know basis and for short periods. Starting a book or a movie this way is a snooze-fest. Occasionally I have been drawn in this way when there is a character to care about or a problem to solve, but I’d rather start with those and hear the history in brief later. I have even begun a book with a great character, intriguing problem, and cool setting, but shut the book later because of a full chapter of the character’s boring family history.
- Meandering – I love settings! I do! But that isn’t the reason I picked up the book. When your first through fifth chapter is all setting, character description, and casual dialogue with no problem, I want to stop reading. My favorite kind of setting description is the kind that gives me a framework to build my own imagination of the setting. Sometimes I don’t even need that! Meandering doesn’t belong anywhere in a book, as far as I’m concerned. If you can’t bear to delete your favorite scene descriptions, save them and pepper them through the book, and maybe the next book, or the series, please.
- TMI – Imagine that your character is a new acquaintance. I as the reader may be headed into an intimate knowledge of the character’s personal life, but that doesn’t mean you blurt it all out at the beginning. Give me a chapter before you talk about a character’s naughty bits or their disgusting medical issues. I’m not unwilling, but please let our relationship start slowly without intimate knowledge about what’s happening in their pants.
- Sudden Arrival – If the only way to make your story exciting and interesting is to plop the poor reader down in the middle of the action, unprepared for what is happening, who these people are, or what is going on, you’re doing it wrong. No, I don’t want an extensive history or long scene description, but I do need some basic info. When a book starts as if a large chunk was randomly chopped out at the beginning, I want to stop. Occasionally it’s done this way properly, but more often it is flubbed.
- Depressing/boring/miserable – I’m a pretty positive person. I recognize that the world is a harsh place and not everybody else can see the bright side. But beginning a book in utter misery just isn’t a good selling point. Hardship is fine, apocalypse is fascinating, but going on and on about how miserable everyone is repels me. Also, most stories start out with a problem to be solved, and then bring on a setback that pushes the main character to achieve something. When we start out at utter misery, where can the setback occur?
What are some other good or bad beginnings of books that you have encountered? What do they do to your reading experience?