Browsing book samples refines your knowledge and can give you a way to measure your own writing. How does your book’s opening compare to the classics?
If you want to learn how to write, read. So goes most writing advice.
Of course, reading an entire book is the best way to get the feel of how a book arc plays out, but you can soak up a lot just reading the opening passages or pages of books. You can browse at the library or go online. If you have a Kindle, sample first chapters are downloadable for most books.
Browsing books refines your knowledge – from the kind of writing styles you gravitate most to, to the array of books out there. You can use this approach to study the writing styles of classics, run down a list of Pulitzer Prize winners, or consume the New York Times Best Sellers list. It’s all accessible.
You can use this to figure out which books you like and don’t like, to pick your next summer read, to find gifts for friends and family, and to search for writing tips – all the best tricks are there in plain sight.
You haven’t paid money, so you won’t regret putting any book down after a few pages, or even the first paragraph, which means you might take the opportunity to explore diverse choices. That’s the point, in fact: to read widely.
Another huge benefit of reading copious quantities of book openings is getting a feel for what “works.” Oceans of words have been dedicated to the importance of getting your book opening right. It’s the first text of yours an agent, editor, or reader consumes. It must present the best of you and hook the reader.
What makes you want to read beyond the end of the page? Can you go a level farther and identify what it is about the opening paragraphs that contribute to a book’s allure? Were you captured by the first word? First sentence? Can you put a finger on it?
All successful openings are different, but they share features. They all have hooks. The main character may be in the throes of an unfolding calamity — starting in the middle of the action, or “medias res” (Latin for “into the middle things”), is classic textbook-level writing advice. They are not meek: openings rip, roar, run, and teleport you into a new world in as few words as possible.
For a true classic, look at Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. This is the story of the workhouse orphan we remember for demanding, “Please sir, I want some more” of the gruel.
The book opens with Oliver Twist’s fraught birth – an extreme life event if there ever was one. Moreover, he barely survives, death hangs thick in the grungy air. The narrator tells us, “it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all.” The opening perfectly sets up the rest of the story.
Not only Oliver, but his mother, threatens to give up the ghost at any moment. Once he’s born, his mother summons the last of her worldly strength and begs the parish surgeon, “Let me see the child and die.” She kisses him lovingly on the head and passes into the afterworld. Dickens is making a calculated yank on readers’ heartstrings by engineering these actions.
Dickens masterfully mixes extreme life events and stirs mercilessly. His recipe contains emotionally potent ingredients: birth (unwanted), death (pitiful), orphan-hood, abject poverty, and the promise of a loveless, cruel upbringing in the workhouse. We now must know what happens to the baby!
Oliver Twist is a model. All book openings should equal it. Create a raging maelstrom like Dickens did for Oliver Twist and readers will be compelled to read your story. This crisis brews in the space of a few paragraphs. You won’t have to read far.
Pick an array of book samples and investigate. Now, ask yourself, “How does your book opening compare?”
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