1. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    How much should you know about a book after the first couple of pages?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by DefinitelyMaybe, Sep 16, 2012.

    How much should a reader know about a book, plot, setting, characters, etc., after one page or two pages?

    I've been looking at books with a newly critical eye. Many seem to give us quite an overview of the who, what, and how very quickly. I read the first two pages of a number of Fantasy novels yesterday. Despite the exotic settings and often exotic races and powers of the characters, they did quite often get pretty much down to the point. In reasonable simple language.

    I'm confused as to exactly what a book should be telling its readers in the first page or two, and how. I've had another look at a number of books, and quite often they get very much straight down to the characters and plot. And describe this in straightforward language so that it's easily taken in and the reader knows very much what is going on if they have read that far.

    I'd like to canvas opinions on how much books should, and do, tell you within the first couple of pages. And what people suggest as preferred writing techniques for starting off a book.

    Here are a few books I've analysed today, and my quite likely wrong impressions of how they start.

    Pride and Prejudice - straight into everything within a page or two. Clearly not all characters are known by then, but we know that Mrs Bennett has noticed the arrival of a single man with a fortune, and is planning to marry a daughter to him.

    The Death of Grass - Main character's family introduced and something of the feel, but no mention of the virus that's going to wipe out grasses and cause society to break down. But, there's a goodly amount of information there and plot is starting to move.

    The Road - a bit abstract due to the telling of a dream, but even then within a page or two, the story, scene, and themes are explained.

    Treasure Island - right into it if you count the narrator saying he's writing down the story of "Treasure Island." Otherwise, it takes a while before various important characters come looking for each other at the inn. But at least characters, scene, and feel are set very quickly.

    Dune - starts with infodump. Then introduces the characters, including enough description to give me a good idea what's going on and where it's all headed.

    My Mum's Going to Explode. Even if the picture of the heavily pregnant mum on the cover and the title wasn't enough - two pages in and there's no doubt what's going on, and who it's all happening to. Not all characters are introduced, but that will be the same for most books, surely.


    Some exceptions - The Illustrated Ghormenghast describes the city of Ghormenghast in some detail right from the start, but doesn't mention Titus or Steerpike. Though, I'm sure a paper copy I saw in the library yesterday got right down to introducing the newly born Titus from the first page.

    The Colour of Magic - Describes the turtle, elephants, world, and Ank-Morpork. But the actual plot doesn't start until later. I'm not sure I'd classify Ank-Morpork burning to be central to the plot of that book.

    The Great Gatsby - Introduces the narrator and his view of the world quickly, but doesn't give much information on who this Gatsby, but just gives a description of what the narrator feels about him. Book starts proper (I think) a few pages in.

    The Haunting - Alan Titchmarsh. I think this book tries to set everything up, but I'm not sure I "got it." There seems to be a variety of things, the quote about ghosts from Tom Jones, the description of the "not a day for death,", and Anne leaving the house. After two pages, these haven't gelled yet.

    Now, here comes the confusing one. A modern book by Will Self.

    Umbrella by Will Self. I found the first sentence near unreadable, and didn't want to read any more. I did read a bit more. The main character is introduced, but in a jumble of confusing (to me at least) language.

    I have been critiquing people in the Writing Workshop section for not getting on with it. If Will Self's book was excerpted there, I would criticise it for that reason I'd probably criticise Alan Titchmarsh's book for having several different sections at the very beginning that don't seem to form a consistent whole until later.

    Has the way that a novel "should" start changed over the last few years or decades?
     
  2. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    A rather brief answer to more lengthy question - the first two-three pages should tell me enough about the story to keep reading. Personally, unless a book's been recommended by a source I trust, a lengthy description of a place is going to turn me off, as would an overview of the characters or setting, however neat and clean and concise. Why do I care about a place, regardless of how nicely described, or a bunch of characters with whom I have yet to connect? I want a character or two who pique my curiosity. I want some kind of set up that also piques my curiosity - an unusual situation, something odd seen or heard, an invitation to something unique, something that tells me the tone of the story or the style of the writer. Just give me a reason to keep reading and not start thinking "Oh get on with it, for heaven's sake!".
     
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  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The reader should always have questions as yet unanswered, until the end of the story (and perhaps even then - I like a book that leaves your thinking after the final page). Questions make the reader continue, in order to find answers.
     
  4. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, fully agreed. But in all books there's a point where the plot actually gets going. Where should that be? (Clearly there won't be just one answer to that, but there will be qualified answers and opinions, I'm sure). If it's page five, and I have no idea where the book is going, I don't like that at all.
     
  5. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think Terry Pratchett's 'The Colour of Magic' introduces the city of Ankh-Morpork as a character in itself. And as it's on fire at the start of the book, even though Pratchett is describing a city, there is a lot of action going on as it's being described. There is a prologue to describe the Discworld, and then several pages of Ankh-Morpork burning before the main character Rincewind appears. But I think there's loads in there to tell you the tone of the story and the style of the writer. But I must admit that while Pratchett does an excellent job of creating and keeping interest, in other cases I can think of that much description with no important characters and no plot turns me off.

    Ghormenghast, at least the illustrated version, also starts with description. But I've seen the (IMHO excellent) TV mini-series, and hence can't read the book as if I haven't read it before. Nor can I remember what it was like reading it, as I can for other books.
     
  6. prettyprettyprettygood
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    prettyprettyprettygood Active Member

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    As a reader I really just want an opening of a book to fascinate me, I have so many books on my reading list and so little time to read that if the intro doesn't intrigue me I'll move on (praise be to Kindle book samples!). Usually the way to hook me in is to get the story kicked off as soon as possible, but now that I think about it the last 3 books I've read they got me hooked from the start in other ways - two of them by painting wonderful, immersive but plot-free scenes that I wanted to escape into, and the other by describing the day-to day goings on of an era & profession I loved reading about.

    I suppose the trouble with looking at Will Self as an example is that he is a long-published author (I remember getting a book of his when I was a schoolgirl, and loving it despite barely understanding it!), he has a reputation for pushing the boundaries/being a bit obtuse and he has a demographic who reads his work so he's pretty much obliged to play around; it helps that he's good at it too!

    So basically I'd say that if you're an excellent writer, and ideally if you've already got a reputation behind you, your plot can kick off a bit later than normal; but if you're learning or are an average writer at the moment it's better to just get a character your reader will care about, and get on with the plot :)
     
  7. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks for your comments, e.g. about Will Self. I do like authors who play with the form, and perhaps if I read Umbrella in a different frame of mind, I'd 'get it' and really enjoy it. Though, would I be in the right frame of mind if I was reading it in the Writing Workshop section?

    Could you name the three books you read that got you hooked from the start in other ways?
     
  8. prettyprettyprettygood
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    prettyprettyprettygood Active Member

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    Sure! The Night Circus - it opens with an utterly magical description of a circus appearing on the outskirts of a town, no specific characters mentioned. I'm actually toying with putting this book down because the author uses present tense which irritates me, but it's that opening scene that's got me keeping the faith for now!

    Then Narcopolis, which is about an opium addict in Bombay - the prologue is a 5-6 page sentence, and even in the book proper the plot takes a while to start, but he writes quite poetically and again it's the immersiveness (not a word) that I love.


    Finally, The Black Dahlia, a detective noir that spends a fair bit of time on the detective's rise through the ranks, focussing on his boxing career. I've just checked, and it's only on page 86/383 that the Black Dahlia case appears.


    I wouldn't have the authority to cite these as examples of excellent openings, and I'm sure many would disagree with me if I did, I just personally really enjoyed them despite going against my usual opinion that one shouldn't mess around.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    As for when the story's direction becomes clear, there's no right answer. Sometimes you know right from the start what the core problem is, sometimes the real problem only becomes clear just before the end. As long as there are events and forces moving the characters and the story forward throughout, it's fine.
     
  10. DoctorNovel
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    DoctorNovel Member

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    For me, it always depends on the book -- sometimes there are books where all the characters jump right into your face within the first couple of pages, then there's those books where the characters, their motive, the plot etc...gradually comes together.
     
  11. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    In The Night Circus the circus suddenly appears. There's a fair amount of mystery. But like Ankh Morpork burning, there's something happening as well as the description. The circus appearing, people queuing, the POV changes to second person placing the reader in the queue. For me, that maintains interest as it isn't a long stretch of exposition without changes, the POV change adds interest. The "Anticipation" section acts like a prologue, I think. There's the short "Primordium" section, like a short second prologue. And then the plot appears to start proper with "Unexpected Visit." I haven't got the entire book so I don't know if Prospero the Enchanter is the MC.


    Narcopolis starts by describing Bombay. When it says "Bombay, . . ., is the hero or heroin of this story," is that a typo? A pun? Hmmm... the first few pages here aren't as grabbing as they could be. In my own personal opinion and in terms of what I personally think makes a good book of course. This intro is a massive sentence, pages long. I don't like this style of starting with a massive sentence. I saw an Iain M. Banks book which started with a similar massive sentence. There is however some action with the narrator describing their own experiences in Bombay, so it's not all static description. Despite Bombay being a real city (even though of course it's not called Bombay any more) there does seem to be similarities between how Terry Pratchett started The Colour of Magic, e.g. mentioning the Pathar Maar, murder of the working classes mirroring the better parts of Ankh Morpork cutting off the bridges so that only the poorer parts burned. But in general, again this is longer description, but something is happening as well. Is all of "Something for the Mouth" all one sentence, several pages long? I'm not sure that works for me, but it's interesting to see how the book starts.

    The Black Dhalia has an explicitly labelled Prologue. I noticed that a number of Fantasy books (which TBD is not, of course) had prologues. As a reader, I don't expect a prologue to get to the point, but to be something different, possibly including exposition. Though, I personally will flick through a prologue to see how long it is before starting to read, so that I know when I can expect to get into the plot proper. The prologue does introduce a murder victim, and introduces the narrator as a police officer, I think. Looking through, the prologue gives us a look into the future and introduces the two main police characters and the murder victim "The Black Dahlia." So, I'd say that this prologue most definitely does introduce a lot of the plot of the book, as well as the main two characters very quickly.

    It's interesting to look at these books and see how they get started. There are many different ways, but there do seem to be some common themes. E.g. if the novel starts with description, there seems to be action in the description. So that it's not just describing the scene, but some action is used to help tell it.
     
  12. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    But the plot can be chugging along like a steam train even when there is significant plot still to be developed, and characters to introduce. An example of this might be "Earth Abides," but it's some time since I read that I can't remember it exactly. What I remember is Ish coming down from the mountain or some other remote place having survived the plague. Of course there might be a prologue I've forgotten. But in any case, the story goes through different stages from Ish alone, to a small community, to a multi-generational community, etc. But the plot is moving along quite quickly from the beginning.
     
  13. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I like tone - sometimes I don't give a hoot about the characters or plot, not right from the start anyway, so it's all about tone. The language of
    the words. I want to know what kind of ride am I in for.
    The Girl in the Photograph by Lydia Fagundes Telles is a great example. The plot is nothing special to speak of, nor the characters but the
    presentation is marvelous!
     
  14. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    I'm a big fan of getting the who's and where's out in the open. As for the why's, I've always enjoyed stories that keep me guessing. As long as the opening of a book is interesting enough to get me to want to read more, I think it's succeeded. Sometimes, If a story reveals to much in the opening, I say to myself, this is already predictable, and loose interest. But a story that after the intro leaves me wondering what's going on, keeps me guessing what will happen next, is something that i'm more likely to take the time to read.
     
  15. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    Is there another example? The Girl in the Photograph isn't out on Kindle yet, and I can't view a sample.
     
  16. prettyprettyprettygood
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    prettyprettyprettygood Active Member

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    ^ I'd actually forgotten about the Dahlia prologue! With that one I was thinking more of the main body of the book, where it takes up to chapter 7 for the body to be found.

    Narcopolis might be a bit like Marmite, and I just happen to love it :)

    Its a good point that there tends to be action amongst description even in scene-setting intros, I'd never thought of it that way.
     
  17. DoctorNovel
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    DoctorNovel Member

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    @DefinatelyMaybe
    Very true, every book/story is different..
     
  18. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Invitation to a Beheading, or Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
     
  19. DanesDarkLand
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    DanesDarkLand Senior Member

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    I find that if I read the first chapter I'll have an idea of whether or not I want to read the whole book. Some first chapters have so many details about the fantasy world in it that its difficult to follow the story from the beginning. The Wheel of Time series is such a monster. I had to take my time and work my way into it, and it wasn't long before i collected the eight books.

    The Green Rider by Kristen Britain was something I just picked up one day, and I fell in love with the book rather quickly. Even though it was a unique world, the ideas were well described, but it didn't throw too much in at once. By overloading the reader in the beginning, talking about myself, then I put the book down and try to find another book that doesn't require me to read reams of indexes to find out what the heck is going on. I find an index useful only at the end when I want to remember certain details. If I'm always referring to an index to ask who is ......., then I can better spend my time doing something else.

    Introduce your story, introduce your ideas, but don't overload your reader.
     
  20. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    In a short answer this is a good measuring stick:

    The first five pages should have your active opening set, the main character introduced, and some sort of problem-which doesn't have to be the over arcing plot issue-for the MC to deal with. That'll hook the reader and keep them reading.

    How you wish to do so is up to you as the writer.
     
  21. Fivvle
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    Fivvle Contributing Member

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    I recently read a book in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. The prologue was 86 pages long. He might as well have just made it into several chapters... but Jordan always was an incredibly long-winded fellow. After a while, his long-windedness has really grated on me, and I think it'll be quite a while before I pick up the next book in the series.
     
  22. Sacrificed13
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    Sacrificed13 New Member

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    You have to give the reader something to latch onto or they have no reason to read what you've written. Pique their interest and addict them to your style. Personally, I like reading books that seduce me with their language and their poetic feel from the very first moment. Steven Gould's Jumper: Griffin's Story and Veronica Roth's Divergent series are both books that made me want to read them (though both for different reasons) from the moment I picked them up.
     

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