Saturday, November 27, 2010

On First Chapters and Conventional Wisdom

Scott D. Parker

Last weekend, while on my first Cub Scout camp in thirty years, I got to talking with one of the fellow fathers. Naturally, I asked him the question I ask of most people: what are you reading. He said that he was about halfway through the first Stieg Larsson book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. His partial review was this: I've heard that the first book is a bit hard to get through, but the last two just fly by.

Later that night, intrigued, I opened the ebook of Dragon Tattoo on my iPod and began reading the prologue. We not-yet-published authors have a simple mantra drilled into our heads from just about any source: you have to hook the reader on page one or, at least, chapter one. If the reader isn't vested, the reader will put down the book and move on.

I have to admit that the prologue, while interesting, wasn't gripping. In an article I read this past week, I learned that Mr. Larsson wasn't sure folks would want to read his books. I can't help but wonder if it's because he knew his opening didn't follow the "conventional wisdom."

In the one novel I've written to date, I intentionally went for the slow burn. I started slow and built up to the big action climax. There were times when I was writing chapters, knowing full well what was coming, and I had butterflies in my stomach as I wrote the words. My dad has given me a pretty succinct review of my book: If we could only get someone to read the whole thing, they can see how good it is. That is, if they can just get past the boring parts, they can read the good, action parts.

I'm sure Mr. Larsson's book is good. How else would 46 million folks devour this trilogy. I'm just curious how he seemed to have bucked the conventional wisdom and started the book in a slow, non-gripping manner.

I'm going to persevere with Dragon Tattoo and see what all the hubbub is about but a question lodged itself in my brain: Is the conventional wisdom outdated? Can authors build a story slowly, trusting the reader to stick with it?

(Apologies to all for missing last Saturday. I had day job difficulties [lost one; had to find another] and that consumed most of my attention. Oh, and prepping for a camp out.)


Unknown said...

I'm guessing the bulk of those 40-odd million readers came to Larsson through the hype. They would therefore be much more open to the slow-burn because "everybody says these books are awesome, right?"

I enjoyed them from page one - but wished at regular intervals that Larsson's editors had done more actual editing.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I found the first hundred pages or so a real chore but after that it was easier. I doubt many people would have persevered if it weren't for word of mouth and word of death.

Anonymous said...

I may be a cynic, but had he not died, I don't think the Millennium series would have blown up world wide. I enjoyed Dragon Tattoo well enough, and like Patty (and most people) it was a hard book to get into, very slow burn. I'd even say it took more than a 100 pages to get going. The middle was great and the end while not as slow as the beginning wound it down until the final climax.

Generally, I give books 50 pages to hook me. There is something about the slow burn, especially done right. I don't need to be hit up side the head with action if the story is good.

Scott I hope to read your book some day. Keep pushing it, and you know it doesn't have to be the first one to market, so keep working on the next and the next.

Steve Weddle said...

Larsson is the anomaly

Mike Dennis said...

Look at it this way, Scott. If Larsson were unknown, utterly devoid of all hype, and he cold-queried the first of those three books to your typical jaded New York agent, what do you think would happen?