Explosions! Or, Why Your First Word Matters
A recent blog post got me thinking:
“People need that first page—no, first line. NO, FIRST WORD to grab them, or they won’t read another. The? Not an explosion. It’s? Not an explosion. Explosion? THE MONEY WORD RIGHT THERE.”
My thought? Gosh, I think he’s right.
I know, I know. Nobody quotes only one word from a book. Quotes are passages, or at least a sentence. Does the first word really matter that much? Why so much pressure on that first word?
Let me explain.
When I open a book to see if I want to buy it—let’s be realistic, check it out from the library—I don’t flip to the middle. If I flip to the back, it’s to see the last page number.
And I avoid eye contact with all the text on the page like I do when I see someone from high school at the mall.
But that’s another story.
No, I flip to the first page of the story. I want to start the story at the beginning. I want to see if the story jives with me.
So the courtship begins.
If we don’t judge a book by its cover, we definitely judge it by its first page. First pages are first impressions, the face of the story. It’s the online dating profile for the culmination of characters, setting and plot.
And a lot is revealed here.
But who has time to read a full page? We spend an average of six seconds on a webpage. It takes a good minute to read an entire page, especially those with six-lined paragraphs.
Skimming is now the new reading.
So I settle for the first paragraph. And if the thought “and then what?” ever pops into my head, it goes into the consideration pile.
Or on my Goodreads’ to-read list.
It’s the first sentence that gets my attention. But it’s the first word that intrigued me enough to get there.
That first word sets up the tone of the story, the pace of the story, the characters of the story, the plot of the story, the should-I-even-care-about-this of the story.
Are you going to waste your first word on the or a?
Does the first word have to be explosions? Of course not. Not every story is about ground-shaking explosions. But the first word must shake the reader in that same way.
That is, if you want to keep them.
Your story should start right away in your first paragraph. Every word counts. Make the first word matter.
Then let the reader fall in love with your story.
What the first word in your story? Should you change it or keep it? Share your word—and words—below.
Strangely enough, both my wife and I *do* flip to a random page to judge. In my case, possibly hers as well, it’s to get a clue for what the author writes like most of the time. One of the reasons I wrote that post was that it is boring to start a new book, to find that the opening number wants to assert itself as EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING AND IT IS UNBELIEVABLY EXCITING. Those aren’t the types of books I’m attracted to as a reader and following from that, I don’t think I’m that sort of writer either.
One of the prime examples of a book where I nearly stopped reading was Paul Hoffman’s The Left Hand of God. It was like reading a pundit’s blog where you know the guy is trying to make every point he can, but where there’s too much of the author in it. What do I mean? If it were being read aloud, these bits would be where the author paused to overtly wink at the audience.
I wasn’t saying you can’t do a big opening, but the idea that it’s something you absolutely MUST do is ridiculous. It’s best to play to your own natural style, and if your strength is weaving a slowbuild, go with that. Don’t force a fiasco, because many will see right through it and be put off accordingly.
I don’t mind the first word being “a” or “the,” but the next three words had better be “naked koala bear.”
But seriously folks… A lame first page is inexcusable. I picked up a book at a flea market based on the cover and the title, but then I opened it at home to find the first two pages contained an expository prologue. On top of that, it was in italics. Yikes. More than choosing a first word carefully, I’d say don’t start anything with italics. It’s like begging me not to read.