Friday, March 4, 2011

A very unscientific look at first pages (with charts!) - part one

It took me quite a long time to realise the beginning of my story needed a lot of work. Then when I finally figured it out, it took me even longer to realise it needed to be scrapped and rewritten.

Afraid of making the same mistakes again, I decided to do some research. And here it is, in the hopes that someone else will find this useful too.

I went on Amazon and went through the first pages of thirteen books in the YA paranormal & fantasy categories. For each, I read the first page ONLY. If I wasn't hooked by then, too bad. If the book had a prologue I did the test on both the prologue and the first chapter (since I know a lot of people don't read prologues, and those that do might get turned off by the prologue before getting to the first chapter).

The three categories I had were: Setting, Character and Intrigue. I classified Intrigue as leading me to ask a question, wanting to know more. I only counted character if it was details about the main character, and it was more than just their name.

If I was on the fence about putting a book in any category, I left it off. Each book had to be clearly in each category.

The numbers of books that fell into each category, or multiple categories.

Based on this pie chart, Setting is the most common component of first pages. 88% of the pages I surveyed had details about setting. Usually they set up the MC's 'normal world', whether it was a fantasy setting or the real world. Kristen Lamb has a good post on why you want to start with the normal world, if you're interested.

Intrigue was the second most common at 56% and Character last with 37%. I think it's interesting that 44% of the pages didn't have Intrigue.

I also gave each book a rating out of five based on my 'Desire to Read On'.

Before I go on, I'd just like to say that these ratings in no way reflect how good the book is. It's only based on the first page and how badly I needed to turn to the second page to know what happens next. It's also, obviously, very subjective. Some pages I gave a five for that others may have given a two, and vice verse. Also, I didn't count words, so some books (if there chapter headings took up most of the page) had fewer words to capture me in.


Clearly, for me, Intrigue is the most important factor in getting me to read on. Which brings me back to the pie chart, 44% didn't have Intrigue!

Lets have a look at what groupings of these elements made me want to read on the most:


Because the sample size was so small here, it's probably best not to drawn conclusions from the data, but as I've already said, this is a very unscientific study, so I'm going to anyway.

Intrigue is the single most important thing to have on your first page. Probably also in your first sentence.

The differences between Character and Setting are marginal, but carrying on the unscientificness (it's a word) I'm going to say that Character is second, and Setting last (the most common element in first pages).

I'll break it down one more time, in the interests of transparency, and so you can disagree with me about various pages if you would like:
* Fallen does have a prologue but I was unable to get the first page from Amazon

So, what do you think? Agree with my very unscientific study? Disagree? Have anything else to add?

Next week, in part two, I'll break down the first page details, and what about each page lead to them getting a higher or lower 'Desire to Read' score.

33 comments:

  1. Wow, that actually sounds pretty scientific to me. Thanks for sharing your findings!

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  2. Hi Gale, I'm glad you found it useful! Very true about unpublished authors needing their first pages to do more work than published. It took me a while to realise what was wrong with my first page. Now it's so obvious looking at the original. No intrigue!

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  3. One day I'll expand it, Prue :). I should look at other genres too, but since I originally did this to help me with my first page (which needed a major overhall) I only looked at YA fantasy & paranormal to start with.

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  4. Glad it was helpful, Regina! I thought it would be easier to visualise with a few charts too :)

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  5. Hey Devin. It's interesting that you say that because I was actually more intrigued by the first page of the prologue than the first page of chapter one for Eragon. It's been a while since I read it so I'm not sure if my preference has changed since then or not. Eragon was one of the ones that had an advantage over the others because there was a lot more text on the pages too. I loved the book though, so I'm glad I didn't get put off by either the first time I read.

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  6. What a cool idea. I'm going to make sure I have setting, character and intrigue on all my first pages.

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  7. Sully's ScribblesJanuary 20, 2012 at 8:53 PM

    Just dropping by to let you know that I gave you a Stylish Blogger Award!

    http://sullyscribbles.blogspot.com/2011/03/fifteen-blogs-im-passing-award-onto.html

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  8. Hey Alison, thanks for the link! I love that that's what Suzie said too. It means I didn't waste a couple of research hours yesterday afternoon ;).

    I will definitely check out your post.

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  9. I've only read Eragon out of those, so that's the only one I can really comment on. Chapter 1 wasn't "omg have to continue" from the first page, but I have to say that Chapter 1 is what made me not put the book down after reading the prologue. When I first bought Eragon and read the first page I put it down before reading on because it felt way too much like a Tolkein wannabe book. :/

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  10. I did a post on this back in October. It was based on a Suzie Townsend workshop I went to at a conference. And guess what SHOULD be in those first pages - setting, character, and INTRIGUE!!!

    Here's the link if you're curious.
    http://alisonmiller20.blogspot.com/2010/10/art-of-query-and-other-bits-of-biz.html

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  11. First of all, you are so organized! Way to be! I would've never thought about doing this. And I totally agree. Intrigue is the most important. I need something there that's going to make me want to read on. Great post!

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  12. This is great! I love your breakdown. Aren't beginnings tough? If anything, this reminds us how subjective it all is! John Truby in Anatomy of Story had some good advice: start with your MC doing what they do. IE if they're a fighter, start with them fighting. If it's a chef, start with them cooking something.

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  13. Wow, what an awesome post! I've starred it in my reader so I can come back to it. Thanks for doing all that "work"!

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  14. Glad it's useful to you, Vicki! I quite enjoyed doing it :).

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  15. That's good advice Barbara. That was one of the things I liked about the beginning of Eon, but she was at swordfighting training so there was that extra element of interest :)

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  16. Haha I'm really not that organised ;). My work desk always looks a bit like a bomb site.

    There's so much reading choice these days, if writers can't hook a person with that first page then they're giving themselves a big disadvantage, I think.

    Glad you enjoyed the post Michelle :)

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  17. A woman after my own heart. I LOVE a good chart. Thanks for doing this. At first glance, I'd say intrigue would make me want to read on, but I ran to my bookshelf and picked 10 favs and only half had intrigue on the first page! Huh. Interesting. Can't wait until next week.

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  18. Charts are awesome! Part of the reason I love the Gatekeeper so much. She has heaps of interesting pie charts on her blog. :)

    Some of the books I gave lower desire to read scores I have actually read and really enjoyed. Just goes to show we make our decisions on whether to read a book or not based on more than the first page, or some of them would never get a second glance! It's only part of the tool kit. ;)

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  19. Hey Sarah, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I'm looking forward to seeing the results of your study :).

    The comment system is called Disqus. It's free and you can get it on most blogging platforms (just google disqus). I changed over because I really wanted to be able to reply directly to comments on my blog. And other commenters can reply to comments they found interesting too. I think it promotes more conversation. What do you think?

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  20. Fantastic post, so interesting! I may have to look through the first pages of some MG books for S, C & I. I'm interested to hear why Timeless didn't grab you so much even though it had all three factors. Looking forward to part two :)

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  21. It is really interesting. It is something that i will consider carfully i think.

    When you changed, did you loose the comments that were already on your site through blogger? or did they change over into the new DISCUS system?

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  22. Glad you enjoyed it! A lot of it comes down to subjectivity, but I have a few other theories too ;)

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  23. When you change you have the option of leaving all the old posts in blogger format, or converting them to Disqus. I converted them over. It also gives commentors the ability to subscribe to replies to their comment only. Unlike with blogger comments when you subscrible you end up getting every reply to the post.

    Check out this post from Marian Schembari on Disqus:
    http://marianlibrarian.com/2010/11/the-1-reason-every-blogger-should-use-disqus/

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  24. Well, Sari. That was a great post. I'm adding your site to my blog roll. You've documented what writers know in their gut but deny saying, "Well, I know readers like intrigue and I don't have enough intrigue in my opening, but they'll like it anyway because I do." That sort of thing. And the plain truth is the unpublished have an even higher burden than published authors to have sensational beginnings.

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  25. Believe it or not, Charles Dickens is a master of hooking the reader in the first few pages using intrigue, but then he has about 200 pages worth of social commentary before he gets back to the mystery. But, it worked for him in his era.

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  26. This is fascinating - and great that you've made qualitative into quantitative. Nice bar graphs too. And you stress that it's not scientific as the sample size is so small. I'd like to see it expanded...although you probably have more than enough to do at present... :)

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  27. This was an interesting read. Mine graphs would probably be more evenly spread, because I tend not to think of openings in those terms. So my liking books with one of those openings should be pretty random. :-)

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  28. I think it is brilliant how you have sorted it into these categories and put it into charts. It really sums it up better and makes it easier to understand what is in it. Very interesting.

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  29. Wow...

    This is very impressive.... Who knew?

    Michael

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  30. No worries Susan. Hopefully they were helpful :)

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  31. It's interesting how things change, and that intrigue was still so important for a first page back then.

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  32. Thanks Sari, awesome post
    I know i have just sent you as message about this, but thought i would say how great this post is.

    I am doing a similar thing my self at the moment. Except i am looking at first sentences and the "point" at which we join a story. Requires a little more reading though so it is a bit slow. So far i have done about 5 books. Three of them are VERY close to the type of book i am writing so it is good for me.

    anyway. great post and where did you get this weird (and awesome) comment system. It's interesting

    thanks

    Sarah Ketley

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