Thursday, March 10, 2011

Literary First Impressions: Turn-Offs and Turn-Ons by Karin Gillespie

You are in a singles bar, tipsy from two dirty martinis and feeling wistful because six months ago you and your boyfriend broke up. Lately your queen-sized bed seems as lonely and cold as an ice floe.

Through the haze of smoke you see a certain someone checking you out. You return his interest, your gaze soaking up his dark blue eyes, his full kissable lips and cut glass chin. Eagerly, your eyes trail to his broad shoulders- garbed in a battered leather jacket. It lingers on his muscular chest, and long, strong legs and finally comes to rest on… a pair of bright-pink Crocs.

You quickly glance away, wondering why he had to ruin a fabulous first impression by stuffing his feet into a pair of ugly shoes.

Guess what? Writing the beginning of a novel is a lot like trying to attract a stranger in a singles bar. Particularly if you’re an unknown author, it’s a trick to convince a reader to pick up your book, pay for it, and curl up with it at home for hours on end.

Want to score with readers? Here are some turn-ons and turn-offs to weasel your way into Kindles and bookshelves everywhere.


Bringing Out the Baggage

You wouldn’t tell a new beau your entire life history nor should you burden a reader with backstory. Wait until the fourth or fifth date (or fourth or fifth chapter) and then and only then give sneak peeks of your checkered past.

Killing Them Softly With Boredom

You know how some people are always recounting their dreams or telling you what they had for breakfast that morning? Or they give a blow-by-blow account of their day, including the trip to the podiatrist? ZZZZZ.
Never begin with the mundane, i.e. waking up, car trips alone, staring out window wistfully.

Acting Crazy

How would you feel if some guy came up to you and said, “Wizards are after me. Duck! Are those bullets coming at us? Is that an explosion in the sky? Come with me and we’ll both escape the evil forces of Zoldar.”
Bottom Line? Action-packed beginnings aren’t any fun because a reader doesn’t have any context and becomes confused rather than intrigued.

Tears, Shrieks and Other Displays of Emotion

A person who shows up for a first date screaming or crying doesn’t usually get a second date. Even you have a really bad case of diverticulitis or your gerbil died, it’s best not to lay that on readers right away. For instance, imagine if Lovely Bones, had started out with Susie Salmon screaming,

“I’ve been murdered!” Instead she’s very calm about it. Lovely Bones has one of the best beginnings I’ve ever read.

Showing Off Photos of Your Trip to Yosemite

If you’re tempted to include long descriptions of scenery and weather in your opening, resist.

Trying Too Hard
Too cutesy, too jokey, too precious.

Introducing Him to Mom and all Your Cousins
In other words, don’t initially dump a bunch of characters on readers.


Be yourself.

There’s something very refreshing about a writer who is confident and poised, ready to tell her story without a lot of tricky elements intended to attract the attention of the reader.

Begin with an interesting anecdote

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. - David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)

Or with a Moment of Change

“It was the day my grandmother exploded”. - Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road or “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”--Kafka, Metamorphosis

Bring on the Intrigue

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. - Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups

Give a Suggestion of Character

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind

Or Hint At What You’re It's All About (Theme)

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Keep it Leisurely Yet Fraught With Expectation

You wouldn’t invite someone into your bed immediately. Neither does your main event have to be laid out in the first few pages. Seduce by hinting at the goodies to come.

What are some of your favorite novel beginnings? How long do you give a writer before you slam the book shut? What’s a deal-breaker for you when it comes to first impressions?


  1. Karin, oooh, I love that first line from GWTW, and I think one of other most memorable ones I've ever read is from REBECCA: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Loved that book! It's probably more important than ever to have a gripping first chapter to capture a reader's attention. I generally give a book a lot of chances. I'm one of those people who has a hard time not finishing something, and I used to make myself read a book 'til the end, even if I wanted to throw it against the wall. I don't do that anymore; but I've read so many good books that just needed momentum that I tend to go a long ways before I give up.

  2. "He liked radical politics and had a fondness for chocolate."

    That's the first line from one of my favorite romances, "Flowers From the Storm" by Laura Kinsale. Nearly perfect romance, if you ask me!

    Great post, Karin :)

  3. You have more patience than I, Susan and I've probably missed out on some great books. I give it about 20 pages.

    Haven't heard of that book, Maria, but I love when someone says a book is near perfect That's how I feel about Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.

  4. Oh, gosh, Karin, this is PERFECT!! One turn-off I'd add is not to be too needy.

    I'll be back (after some coffee) with great beginnings!

  5. Great post! Glad I found your blog.

    I have seen one too many novels begin with a dream or characters who are having a long, self-evaluating look in the mirror (which I've passed on, in the past). I'd also warn against the novel that wants to describe all - as in the one packed with adjectives; and the one who is trying really hard to sound like an author they admire rather than being themselves and allowing their unique style to rise to the surface. ( :

  6. Thanks, Judy . And yes, neediness, ick.

    Glad you found us, Erin. Good examples.

  7. Hi. I found your blog from a tweet by Ellen Meister, retweeted by TheLitCoach, whom I follow.

    Great first lines? Hmmm.

    "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

    In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.

    Mr. and Mrs. Dursely, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

    I do have one question on what Erin said about opening a novel with a dream. What if it is a lucid dream, one where the protag is aware that she is dreaming and is able to control and fully experience the dream she is having?

  8. Hey Karin! Great blog post! It's always so great to be reminded how to make a great opening.

  9. Glad you found us,Suzanne. Thanks for sharing the great first lines.

    Thanks, Brenda.

  10. Your blogs are SO good, Karin. I always get a lot out of them. Thanks.

  11. I love this post - fantastic and creative! Bright pink Crocs would ruin the mood, I agree.

  12. I love Jeff Abbott's opening line in ONLY GOOD YANKEE: "There wasn't much to begin with in Mirabeau, so I was awful surprised when someone started blowing up parts of town."

  13. Thanks, Therese, Sarah and Judy. That's a killer opening line, Sara. I've not heard of that book.

  14. Love this post, Karin!! I'm printing it and posting it in my writing nook! A wealth of information... and so much fun to read!!

  15. I'm loving THE WEIRD SISTERS. Just downloaded the opening the other day reading the NY Times on my iPhone. First line: "We came home because we were failures." Totally hooked from that moment on!

  16. Not "with it" enough to think of favorites, but I love this post. As I struggle through my edits, I found it inspiring.

  17. Karin, wonderful post and a helpful reminder for all of us ;). You mentioned one of my fave first lines (from P&P) and Maria's line (from Laura Kinsale) makes me want to read that book!

  18. That's flattering, Laura and Sam. Carleen, I'm wanting to get my paws on that book
    Glad u liked the post, Marilyn.

  19. that was a great intro then landing on the pink crocs LOL
    But darn, I then linked to the Lovely Bones 1st chapter and now I'm haunted by it (which is why I never read that book b/c I knew I'd be haunted by it!). Must go read something upbeat now to distract myself from it!) Great piece Karin!

  20. Heard about this post from a FB buddy (Carleen Brice). Great read (and nice blog)! Thanks for reminding me what goes into a good opening. Even established authors can use a refresher now and then. I'm going to link to this from my blog in my post tomorrow.

  21. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times..”
    Enjoyed this blog. Still working on my novel. At the same time adapting it into a TV script as thesis for a Masters in Screenwriting at UGA.