Tuesday, July 04, 2006

sweet little lies

Never start a book with a lie.

An editor told me this years ago. What she meant was don't trick the reader into thinking your book is one thing when it's really another. Don't promise a roller-coaster ride when you're really taking them on a sedate merry-go-round.

I've always thought that was great advice.

But I've noticed a lot of lying going on in bookland.

A lot of recently released books start with intense action and violent murder. After that first-chapter hook, the book settles into a slow police procedural, a court-room drama, literary fiction, even a cozy. I suspect many of these opening chapters are added later at the request of an editor.

Has anybody else noticed this trend? What do you think of it? Does it drive you crazy, or do you simply see it as evolution? As publishers doing what they see as necessary to sell books?


John R. said...

"Start with a body" is one of the oldest truisms in the business, and I suspect all this is is just an aberration of numbers. I've certainly never had an editor ask that of me, and when I've spoken with other people I can't remember them ever mentioning it happen.

stay_c said...

I hadn't noticed it in books, but movies are terrible with it.

Uptown Girls, Good Company, The Ringer all are good movies, ruined because the marketing made me expect something different.

Why couldn't they just let the movie stand on its own merit instead of trying to be the comedy it wasn't?

Tami said...

You know Anne, I have noticed this. It's funny, I'm working on my cozy right now and since a cozy and all, I started off with my main character arriving home to find a body. Before i get to the body, I have a little background of the town and my heroine, etc. When I had a few people read the first few chapters, everyone (everyone but one actually) said that I shouldn't start with my heroine and info about her, I should start with the murder or body. I thought that was interesting. Are people so used to this trend that now they expect the body in the first few pages?

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I'm all about the body count. The first death is three pages in, though it's through neglect rather than outright murder. The first killing is near the end of chapter one.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Yes. I've seen it and it drives me nuts.

I have a confession. I kind of like to know who the book is about before the machetes start swinging. KNow what? Lots of times I skip the first chapter and go right to the second.

Chapter 1, the New Prologue.

anne frasier said...

john, i've been asked to move chapters around or add a chapter to the beginning. editors know people tend to read the first few pages of a book. in my case, i think it made my books better, but i'm talking about chapters that don't fit the rest of the book in tone or pace.

stay-c, that drives me crazy when movies are presented in the completely wrong way.

patrick, i have nothing against body count! :D

tami, john said that's a truism, and i believe him. not sure about a cozy though. and i have to think there's some way to shake it up and mix it up so it's not just 1,2,3. too many books are just too similar.

m.g., i agree. you have to care about a character. i've also seen a lot of main characters put in life-threatening situations on page one. if i don't know them, i don't care. i think you can introduce a character fairly quickly -- sometimes just a sentence or two, but i still need something.

Bailey Stewart said...

I haven't seen this, but it would drive me crazy. People read the first couple of pages of a book to get the feel of what the book is about. If they do this with these books, then they'll get home, read more and be disappointed. That's not right, and I'm not sure about the logic behind it. I've been told that if you are writing a mystery/suspense/action book you should start with action - but that's what the book is about, not turning it in to a whole different story. Egads!

Sandra Ruttan said...

I have seen some of this. And experienced some of it. I think it's very tricky, to be honest. I recently read one, but I won't name it, where it was an enjoyable story, a worthy read, but certainly not what the book was packaged as. If I was a narrow-minded reader, I would have been seriously pissed off. Would it affect a future purchase by the same author? Possibly.

anne frasier said...

bailey, i actually read a dry court drama that started out as something completely different. very annoying.

sandra: i agree about it being tricky, and nobody likes to be tricked.

Bill Cameron said...

I'm a very patient reader -- up to a point. I do stop reading books I'm not enjoying, but I will stick with it for a while before I give up. And, yes, one of the things that's most likely to stop me is the feeling that I got set up at the beginning.

To veer slightly, I do tend to like prologues. Of course, I don't like them if they feel pasted on at the beginning last minute, and some do. As is sometimes the case with chapter one. Or chapter seven. Or wherever.

My inclination is always to trust the writer to start at the proper place and tell the story in the proper way -- at least until they prove me wrong. A novel isn't "Murder for Dummies" or whatever, where you can jump to the chapter about poison, then to disposing of the body, because, well, with your murder you're not going to bother with firearms so no need to read that chapter. A novel is an experience. It may fail, but if you jump ahead and decide it's not working, how can you be sure it failed because of what you skipped?

angie said...

I can't count the number of places I've read the whole "start with a pow" thing. I think a lot of writers translate that to mean crazy violence, murder, perils of pauline kind of openings. The problem (as you pointed out) is when the rest of the novel just isn't that kind of a book. And I think Sandra hit the nail on the proverbial head - "not what the book was packaged as." That whole marketing platform/packaging issue combined with the must have superduperpowbang beginning makes it difficult NOT to be disingenuous. *Sigh* What's a (mystery/crime fic) writer who's NOT writing noir/hard-boiled/thriller-killer stories to do?

anne frasier said...

bill, i'm with you when it comes to prologues. i've seen a lot of complaints about prologues lately. i usually like prologues and haven't understood the stance most people are taking against them.

maybe you've hit on something.

maybe if those ill-fitting first chapters had been prologues they wouldn't have seemed so out of place.

anne frasier said...

angie: oh, yeah! we hear that all the time!
it seems to me that all books are much more similar than they were years ago -- but maybe that's just my perception. but you have to wonder what impact the internet has had on what writers write and how they tell the story. i think the secret is to take currently accepted method # 1 and somehow make it your own. i like a nice opening hook, but i don't think it always has to be a body or superduperpowbang. (love that description!)

anne frasier said...

tami: i revisited your post, and i don't think i'd have a problem with your story the way you described it as long as the opening background info wasn't extremely long. it's nice to know the main character a little when she finds the body -- especially in a cozy i would think. maybe somebody else will have another idea.

Tami said...

Thanks for the revisit! Yeah, I'll see how it flows as it. Why start the book with a violent murder scene when it's more about the heroine solving the crime more than it's about the crime in itself (like a forensic mystery, or police procedural.) Does that make sense?

The way it is now, the body is still found at the end of the first chapter.

Hmmm, hopefully I can solve me problem. I'll just keep writing and see what I get to. Maybe it will answer itself later on.

Stephen Blackmoore said...


Can I use that?

There are a lot of cliches in any genre. Yes, every book needs to be interesting from the get go, but they don't all have to start with a body. Personally, I prefer a head in a bag, but that's just me.

The problem I'm finding myself in at the moment is in trying to avoid the cliches, but still make the opening dyanmic and interesting.

I'm working on a PI novel, and I'm having a hard time figuring out how to open it without having the usual femme fatale walk into the office crying about her sister.

At the moment the protag gets stuck with the case because he loses a poker bet, but I'm having a hard time making a poker game interesting. No dead body in the first five pages, no violent outbreaks. Maybe I need a bar brawl?

anne frasier said...

stephen, i think a head in a bag is also becoming cliche. :D how did that happen???

i actually love the opening you described. i think getting stuck with a case because of a poker game is a great hook.

jamie ford said...

I don't read a ton of mysteries, but even I get tired of the "begin with the body" thing.

((I can't count the number of places I've read the whole "start with a pow" thing.))

I think it’s always good to start in a scene, but does that always have to be the scene of a crime? If I pick up a mystery, I'm going to assume that someone's going to die, be found dead, kill someone, etc. So I'm always a little disappointed when a book starts with the crime or the crime scene. I think it's less cliché and more compelling to start with a scene that defines the protagonist--something emotionally compelling, leading up to a bigger event.

But hey, I'm an emotional guy. I expect more character than corpses.

anne frasier said...

oh, these literary writers. *shakes head*

jamie, it's interesting to get your viewpoint. i was starting to think maybe i'd read too many thrillers and mysteries this year so it just SEEMED that a large number of people were doing the same thing. characterization is sadly lacking in a lot of books right now. i do know that.

Jer said...

In improv comedy they say "start in the middle." I think that's good advice in writing as well. My first draft of my first manuscript several years ago had about three chapters of exposition.

:) Don't judge me. I was in a hotel room, the fleet wasn't in, and there was nothing to do so I started writing. Anyway, that manuscript changed so the murder was discovered in the first paragraph. How the protagonist responded made people care about her (I hope). A well-published friend patiently had me move the murder closer and closer to the beginning of the book.

It's a cozy, so there's no guts being flung about, but still--it's a body. And it's right there.

Elizabeth said...

Since the only books I've read over the last three years are either thrillers or non-fiction business books, I've come to expect a body in the opener. Thankfully, the thrillers have always lived up to their promise. But I hadn't noticed until this post, the business books also start out with a "body" of sorts, usually a business that failed because it fell into some dangerous pitfall that the gentle reader can avoid if only she will read the book and obeys its commands.

You're right, if this kind of a hook is rampant throughout publishing, it's a disturbing trend. I understand opening with a "pow" of some sort. Music, writing, even painting, all needs a hook or why would anyone trouble themselves with further study?

But, why does the "pow" have to be a dead body? Why not a stunning moment of character, like the prologue to Frank Rich's wonderful memoir Ghost Light? Or a surprising moment of plot, like the long cold dive of Toni Morrison's main character in Tar Baby? Or perhaps not a body, but a note in a bottle, like in The Perfect Storm?

Ok, there I go...gettin' all literary on you all! Don't hold it against me, will you? I really think you've got a point, Anne!

anne frasier said...

jer, I think the start in the middle advice is great. very interesting that the same applies for improv. I never thought about that before, but it makes perfect sense.

i do think some new writers tend to tell too much up front with full scenes that really shouldn't be there. glad you got that out of your system long ago. :)

anne frasier said...

elizabeth, i like the idea of a stunning moment of character. :)

and i hate to admit that i haven't read any of the books you listed. don't hold that against me! even though i haven't read them, i get what you're saying. :)