Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What Is The Ideal Book Beginning?

One of the most critical moments for any book is its beginning. The first chapter, even the first sentence often determines whether you’ll finish the book. It sets the tone. A good beginning doesn’t necessarily mean a good ending and neither does a bad beginning mean a bad ending. However, it is much easier to stay at the top if you start there than if you have to climb the mountain.

Different Types of Beginnings

I characterize beginnings loosely into three different types:
1) 0-60mph in 3 seconds: There are some books that I know from the moment I begin it that I’m going to like it. Often there’s a great action sequence. But most often it’s because the writing and I click just like *that*. I usually – but not always – end up loving these books.
  • Examples: The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, and Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa.
    • I loved them all. The characters’ voices were what attracted me most to these books. There’s a feeling that the characters and I are old friends.
2) Lazy River: This is the most common type of beginning. It’s neither bad nor good. It’s more of a waiting game. I’m interested enough to keep reading, but don’t feel particularly invested. Sometimes I end up liking, or even loving these books, but most often they’re forgettable.
  • Examples: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, which I loved. I can’t think of any others off hand, which fits with the definitely of the category.
3) Wrong Track: Sometimes you know immediately that a book is not for you. Maybe the writing is horrible or you hate the characters. Or maybe the writing and characters are great, but you can’t make yourself care. These books are almost always DNF. I don’t have to be captivated immediately, but I have to have some motivation to keep going.
  • Examples:
    • Tris and Izzie by Mette Ivie Harrison. Struggled to get past the first page; gave up at page 40.
    • Iron King by Julie Kagawa. A rare success with this category. I hated the beginning of this novel and couldn’t stand how Meghan Chase lusted after the out-of-her-league popular guy. But on the basis of reader recommendations, I kept going and fell in love with the series.
4) Walking Into Walls: I instinctually assume that books with stellar beginnings make the best book. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that many of the books that touched my heart the most were the ones that I scratched my head about at first. The beginnings were opaque and twisty. I didn’t know what was happening. Part of me was intrigued and wanted to move on. Part of me was frustrated and wanted to give up. But when I persevered the book was even better because of my initial confusion. This doesn’t always work. Sometimes I start out confused and stay confused. Or the frustration isn’t worth it.
  • Examples:
    • Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. I actually put this book down for a few months. I didn’t love it until 2/3 of the way through when everything made sense. Now the beginning feels incredible.
    • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Much like the circus, the beginning of this book is magical and mysterious. It set a tone that I didn’t appreciate for a long while.
    • Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Similar to Jellicoe Road, it took me at least halfway through the book before I appreciated it. The atmospherics were beautiful but the characters held themselves at arms length for a long time.
    • The Dark Divine by Bree Despain. On the other hand, some books take so long to get going that it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I sort of liked this book, but didn’t start really enjoying the series until the second book.
What is the best beginning for a book?

I am most likely to love a book if its beginning is (1) Fast or (2) Confusing. The realization is confusing in and of itself. The impetus for writing this discussion post was the realization that the books I love most were often not the ones I liked the best at the beginning. And that led me to wonder if confusing beginnings were ideal. Like many things in life, I often appreciate things that I have to work for at first. Perhaps I like books because of their difficult beginnings not in spite of them.

On the other hand, shouldn’t the ideal book be the entire package with a great beginning, middle, and end? I love the warm and fuzzy feeling I get when I instantly love a book. There’s nothing quite like a reader’s high. While I understand the value of working to appreciate a book, I’m reading for fun. I want the book to entertain me, rather than feel like I have entertain the book (in a matter of speaking).  Of course, a lot of these instant click books are mind candy that won’t stand the test of time. But not all of them. The favorites I listed in my examples are well written books that I will likely re-read.

What are some examples of books you loved right from the beginning? Or books that you had to grow to love? Or books that you hated from the very beginning?


  1. Oh this is a great post!!!!!! I love when an author manages to grab you and suck you in right from the beginning. Of Poseidon was such a book, it started with a bang and suddenly you were right into the story with no way to put it down! But of course, there are also those books where you wait impatently for something to happen that grabs you! Like Halfling - the opening scene was great but then it slowed down and I put it away thinking I might pick it up later- never happened. Right now I'm trying desperately to read The Peculiars but.. no much better luck. The beginning is painfully slow and I am still not into the story...

    Again, I love an awesome opening and a great first chapter!

  2. Excellent post. I just started reading the Iron King today and am not really feeling Meghan. I'm gonna continue with it cause I've heard so many good things about it. ITA with your comments about Jellicoe Road too. When I started it I was like wahhh??? for a good while but by the time it was finished I loved it.

  3. ~ This is a really nice post and you categorize so nicely.

    "What are some examples of books you loved right from the beginning? Or books that you had to grow to love? Or books that you hated from the very beginning?"

    Books I loved right from the beginning would be "the last vampire series" and "mortal instruments." Some bookes I had to grow to love would be "angela's ashes" and a book I couldn't stand from the begining would probably be "the adventures of huckleberry finn" - I remember it being required reading in 8th grade - I must have read the first chapter 80 times and still could nor understand the language being used in the pretense it was meant to be understood.

  4. I love books when they aren't confusing and the your right the first chapter can make or break me in finishing the book.
    But the ones you mentioned with confusing I did enjoy like scoprio races.

  5. Love this post!! The names you gave each type of beginning suit them so well. I've experienced all of these. I think I hate the Walking into walls starts the most because that just-started-and-put-down-for-something-better book stares at me, as if it's daring me to pick it up and keep reading. It haunts me, though it doesn't usually tempt me to pick it up until much later.

    I really just want a book that catches my attention enough to keep me going. It doesn't have to snare me from the first sentence, though that would be really nice. It does need to grab me within the first 1/4 of the book (I've been reading a lot of ebooks lately and find myself DNFing them around 30%...not sure what page that is but it's a biggie for me!).

  6. I usually gravitate toward the fast beginnings as well - the ones that just reach out and grab me and make me want to procrastinate on everything in my life so I can just sit down and read:) That being said, slow sometimes works for me as well, as long as it's not slow for hundreds of pages. I don't mind meandering around the story for a while, but I need it eventually to get to the point:)

  7. Awesome post!
    With me a book that starts off with fast paced really gets me engrossed in the book. However I don't always mind if a book has a slow start it just means it takes me longer to get through the chapters, but if the slow-ness goes on for a long time I might just give up hope and not finish it sometimes. I also consider the main character's voice too, if it interests me I'll keep reading, if there is an interesting back story it most probably will keep me hooked :)

  8. I like beginnings that intrigue me. They either start of fast paced and I'm in the action right away or they may be slow but catch me in some way whether I'm confused or completely lost there is some spark that makes me want to figure it all out.

    I agree that beginnings are a tricky thing. This is one of the reasons that I try to finish every book I start because there are many books that I loved by the end but didn't like at the beginning. I don't want to miss out on a fantastic book, because the beginning didn't grab my attention.

  9. I can't think of any other old books I've read before so I'm thinking based on my current reads. What immediately popped out was Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross as well as How To Kill A Rock Star by Tiffany DeBartolo. Both books really hooked me up from their very first pages. I also feel like the more confused I was about the beginning, the more intrigued I become. I rarely DNF books so that could be a positive thing if the book turns out to be a gem.

  10. Alison, I really appreciate the careful thought and insight you put into these posts. They are so informative.

    I recognized all these types, especially because of your great examples, but I would have to say that for me, it depends on what mood I'm in. Sometimes, I don't mind the slow build up, and sometimes, I just want to jump right in.

    I totally agree with you on Jellicoe Road. It took me forever to get through that book.

  11. Interesting thoughts. I love a book that hooks me right away, and if it's confusing, that does help. Unless I find the book too confusing, which sometimes puts me off from reading it, because I don't understand what is going on.

    Thank you for sharing! This is a huge help to authors like me, who want to know what types of books readers like. :)

    I've nominated your blog for the Sunshine Blog Award. Here is the link:



  12. This is a fantastic post!! I think I like the confusing starts best, I like having to figure out what's going on and being really drawn into a story that way. I totally agree with you about how pivotal the beginning is; I mean, I read books where the beginning hasn't grabbed me, and I have finished and enjoyed them, but I LOVE that feeling when you read the first few pages of a book and think "oh yeah, this is gonna be amazing" nothing beats that

    The Cait Files

  13. Hmm, I like book that really throw you into the story. I recently read Storm bu Brigid Kemmerer and the story started off with someone getting beat up. Action and hero! My kind of start!

  14. I really don't give too much thought of a book's beginning come to think of it. I never DNFed a book after reading the first chapter. What makes it or breaks it for me is a) the writing- by this I mean the "show don't tell" rule and b) the characters- do I have a vivid picture of them in my mind? Could I pick them out of a crowd?

  15. The First Days by Rhiannon Frater is one of those books that grabs you at word #1 and keeps you for the entire book. It's the first one that popped into my mind really. LOL! (And it was one of those that I NEEDED the next book, no matter what it took.)

    -Jac @ For Love and Books

  16. Jellicoe Road was definitely one book I also set aside after the beginning, but it was completely worth continuing. I've grown to love those slightly confusing beginnings, and definitely adore fast-straight-into-the-action beginnings as well. It's fun to jump right into an intense part of the story!

    Great post!

  17. How fun!! This makes me want to really think about it and figure it out!!

    I like Scorpio Races right off... it had something exotic to it. Like Shatter Me. I really like it when an author impresses me right off with just the writing.

    I started Immortal Rules, which I don't have time for right now, but I love what you said, it's so... BAM!

    I couldn't agree more about The Iron King, either. I squirmed the entire first half, irritated as I could be, but now I want to devour the series faster than I can get 'em. I'm totally curious if I'd still feel the same on a re-read. Probably if you felt that, too.

    Soulless caught me right off when I would've set it down instead. I was ready not to read Of Poseidon, too, for some reason, but BAM! Cracked me up! Like Midnight in Austenland did... funny right off and great writing thru-out.

    Too fun. Thanks!!

  18. I like books that start out fast, but also, like you said, like the ones that leave you confused enough that you just have to keep on reading because you have to find out what comes next. Great post!

    ♥JJ iReads♥

  19. This is a great list. You were so spot on, I can think of books to fill all of these categories. I have to say that I'm a fan of "walking into walls" beginnings too. When done well, it's a real treat to see an awesome take something obtuse and connect it to a more sturdy plot or theme. I think that it shows real creativity.

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