First lines are vital for attracting readers. Drawing in your audience and involving them in the story you’re spinning is of the utmost importance and even more so in the first five pages. There’s even a book for that! Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. But it’s not just the publisher’s rejection pile writers must worry about.
Say you’ve achieved the holy grail of writers: publication. Now it’s time for your second or even your third book. You’ve already established a track record with your first book, but is there room to slacken the pace? Mystery readers don’t expect a body to drop dead on page one. The murder need not happen by the first chapter’s end. Yet conventional wisdom is that reading a book’s beginning presages the rest to come. So there must be some draw, some attraction to the story or its characters. After all, not all readers will start with that first book.
Case in point…
I have several novels—picked up here and there—sitting in piles awaiting my attention. Generally they are by authors I’ve not yet sampled. Then a moment comes… I must have something to read. I select a book from the pile and begin…
Penny Brannigan awoke disoriented and confused. What on earth was she doing in the old-fashioned spare bedroom of Emma Teasdale’s cottage? Why wasn’t she at home in her own bed in the small, tidy flat above her manicure salon?
It’s the start of a cozy mystery. I read the first chapter. Penny goes on to fret about sorting through clutter in the cottage. Her boyfriend—the local constable no less—drops by to lend a hand. We learn that Emma died—naturally—and bequeathed her cottage to Penny and this is clearly not the first novel in the series. Chapter Two. Penny’s boyfriends discovers a secret cache of letters. Then Penny goes to a lawyer’s office about signing documents related to a partnership. There, she sees a painting similar to the one in Emma’s cottage. The painter—we learn—died in a hit and run back in 1970.
To be honest, by this point—some 27 pages in—I just wasn’t grabbed by the story. Elizabeth J. Duncan’s A Brush With Death (published in 2010) is described on the back cover as “the nail-biting adventures of a manicurist turned amateur sleuth…Penny Brannigan inherits a charming cottage…and happens upon an unsolved, decades old crime.” She comes upon an artist’s love letters and sets out to learn more about the painter who met a tragic end.
I was first attracted to the story by its blurb on the back cover. The retrospective murder sounded intriguing. However, there’s nothing nail biting about the first two chapters. Yet I still went on to read Chapter Three. Penny starts to wonder about the artist’s death and by chapter’s end she finally reads the first letter. Still not enough.
There is an inherent difficulty in plotting a retrospective murder. By its very nature, there is a lack of immediacy to the crime. Such stories need time to build interest in this decades-old unsolved murder, and they need more to intrigue us early on. Either present day characters that draw our interest or tidbits about the cold case yet to be solved.
Perhaps if I had read the first novel in the series, but alas… so setting aside this story, I selected once again from my pile…
The lobby was air-conditioned and the rug was the kind you sink down into and disappear in without leaving a trace. The bellhops moved silently and instantly and efficiently. The elevators started silently and stopped as silently, and the pretty girls who jockeyed them up and down did not chew gum until they were through working for the day. The ceilings were high and the chandeliers that drooped from them were ornate.
Our narrator soon encounters the hotel manager. It’s time to settle some of the tab that’s been incurred. Our narrator, Mr. Gavilan, nonchalantly assures the manager that this will be no trouble. Soon after, he has skipped out on his bill and we learn Gavilan is an assumed name. Our grifter heads for Atlantic City and a chance for a new game. To set up his new persona, he steals another man’s luggage and checks into a swank hotel. He meets a beautiful young woman married to an old, fat, and ugly man who is very rich. By chapter’s end—still the first chapter—he discovers heroin hidden in the suitcase he stole.
Thirty-one pages and I was hooked halfway to finishing them. Lawrence Block’s Grifter’s Game (originally published as Mona) is a 1961 noirish thriller urging reader’s to finish the tale. The colorful cover art (see right) with its retro flair and the author’s name recognition first attracted my attention to this story.
Both novels employ first-person narration, but in the second (Block’s) things happened and happened quickly. Is it fair to compare the two styles? A cozy vs. a thriller? I say, why not? There are cozy mysteries that excite us from page one. I don’t demand a body on page one or by the end of the first chapter, but I do wish to be engaged by the story about to be undertaken.
These two books just happened to illustrate a point—one I’ve repeatedly learned in recent years—about the importance of any books first five pages. Readers may be willing to give more time—and pages—to decide their interest level as compared to a publisher, but first chapters are important whether it’s an author’s first book, their ninth, or any one in between.
I know I will continue to read Grifter’s Game, and the full review will likely appear on this site in the coming weeks. I’m not so sure about A Brush With Death. Yet writers can learn from any book they read.
Have you read either book? Do you agree with these assessments? Share your thoughts, or comment on a book you’ve read that either succeeded or failed to grab your attention in its first few pages.