While Stumbling through the Intertubes a while back, I came upon a little website called WeBook, and was intrigued. The premise is simple: someone pays a little money to put up the first page of his story, other people (and editors) rate the story, and if they like it, they ask for more—first a chapter, then the whole book. The website makes a game out of this process, by letting raters know afterwards what other raters and editors thought of the book. This system encourages people to try for the ‘right’ rating, the one other people and editors gave, to demonstrate their knowledge of literature—though undoubtedly some take pride in idiosyncratic ratings, a display of unusual taste. Occasionally, the website will mix things up a little: they’ll add the first page of one published work, to see if readers can spot the black sheep. The first time this happened to me, the Verne entry was obvious. It’s unfair to the authors, since published works usually undergo extensive editing, but the difference is plain to see.
All this got me to thinking about how writers begin stories. To some extent, it’s obvious—hook the reader, hook the reader, what every writing instructor has told his students for centuries. And some authors make this objective crassly obvious. Take, for example, the systematic opening murders of Dan Brown and Lee Child novels, the Law & Order style of starting with a dead body; or another staple, the birth of a child on a dark and stormy night intruded on by mysterious forces.
But many good books aren’t so blatant about it. A Navy commander is interrupted in post-battle repair work to report to his superior (all right, so he’s on a spaceship, but still). Another man waits in prison to return to his ordinary life. Two witches have a trivial squabble, a ranch manager is briefly mistaken for a stable boy, and an old man visits his wife’s grave. These books have clearly defined opening scenes, but identifying what draws the reader in isn’t easy. This is popular literature, mind—I’m not even going to try applying this paradigm to something like The Sound and the Fury or The Silmarillion or other books that plainly weren’t written to appeal to readers.
(I can hear the Tolkien fans screaming bloody murder right now. Relax, I’m one of you. I loved Silmarillion. But it wasn’t written to sell. It’s essentially a snapshot of Middle-Earth’s history—something that continuously evolved throughout Tolkien’s lifetime. I can guarantee you that J.R.R. didn’t write the Old Testament-style opening to win readers over; in fact, reading his son Christopher’s notes in Unfinished Tales, readers are turned off by the intro. And, really—d’you think any diehard Tolkien fan would put down the book because of the beginning?)
One common element lingers, though: depth. Why did WeBook’s Verne entry stick out like the Mona Lisa on a wall of graffiti? Okay, the use of archaisms like “compeers” and “nation of shopkeepers” did most of the work. But in a book about three men deciding to launch themselves to the Moon, Verne starts out describing the American post-Revolutionary state of military affairs, and particularly artillery affairs, in loving detail. You can tell where he’s going with this, of course. However, the introduction leaves the impression of a larger world working behind the scenes of the story.
Each of the books I looked at did much the same thing. Events occur against a backdrop. The job of the introduction is to place the story within that framework. This is where the formula of Dan Brown fails: for all the gruesome shock value of his introductions, they don’t connect the reader to the story’s world in any way. Some novels go to the other extreme and end up making text of context. It’s hard to find an example to condemn, though: the dystopia Brave New World is direct in its worldbuilding, and Asimov certainly takes every opportunity to return to psychohistorical reasoning in Foundation, but this is entirely justifiable.
The best way to create an impression of depth is probably just to write a deep story. There’s a reason why the first words the author writes aren’t usually the first words of the book, and essay writers often leave the intro for last. My recommendation to WeBook authors: though you only need to submit a page, it should be just the tip of the iceberg.