Monday, April 2, 2012

Beginnings, AKA: A very unscientific look at first pages (with charts!)

It's day 2 of the A-Z, and I'm not off to a flying start. I've not been feeling flash today, so I hope you'll forgive me for reposting an old post. I was going to write a post about beginnings, and luckily for me this is one of my favourite posts that I've written!

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. [Edit: even after this research, I still haven't gotten my beginning to a place I'm happy with. Never mind, I'll keep trying!]

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 draw 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. Also, when I made this chart I think I must have meant to make that a percentage, Ie Eon got 5/5 Desire to Read On, or 100%.

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

If you enjoyed this, check out part two, where I break down the first page details, and what about each page lead to them getting a higher or lower 'Desire to Read' score.

Again, sorry I'm being so lame on only DAY 2 of the A-Z. I promise I will post fresh content tomorrow. For now though, sleep. Thank you everyone for stopping by!


  1. It's this approach to craft that helps a writer improve their work and build a career. Nicely done!

    I think you've been by my place, so you've seen how I feel about setting. For me, it's the seed from which a story grows.

    Which isn't to say I prattle on about it in the first few pages. I think you're spot on: If the first few paragraphs aren't artfully written and lack intrigue (and that's the perfect word), I'm not buying the book. And yup, I need both. I want poetry in the prose, and currents strong or subtle that immediately drag me into the story and pull me somewhere interesting.

    Awesome post, Sari. Thanks for the work you did here, and thanks, too, for sharing it.


  2. Very cool graphs! Just reading those really helps with the beginning of my wip. Thanks!

  3. This research is really interesting. I like the idea of working on the intrigue - hopefully it might give me a jump start :-)

  4. I make my opinion about a book from the jacket blurb more than the first pages. If I like the pitch I might bother to go down load the sample on my kindle. (Usually 1-3 chapters.) I read to the end of those then decide if I'm willing to spend money on it.

    Then even if the book has a slow opening, I'll likely still get it if the premise (as described in the jacket blurb) is still interesting.

    There's only a small handful of books I haven't bought after reading the sample. Those I usually wasn't too interested in from the start.And no matter how big of a cliff hanger they leave me off on, I won't buy something that's poorly written.

    BTW. Scrolled down to see your A post and saw Hugh Jackman/Wolverine. I'm seriously your newest follower just for that awesome reason.

  5. I'd agree about intrigue. If I'm not asking questions, then the book is less likely to hold my attention.

    The Golden Eagle
    The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

  6. Interesting take. I see some truths here. New follower here. I’m enjoying reading my fellow “A to Z”ers. I look forward to visiting again.


  7. Really interesting scientific approach. I'll return to study your pie chart when it isn't April! I always struggle with starting in normal world, and balancing that with intrigue. Huh. I'm in the process of adding more "normal world" to the beginning of my novel-length WiP, but I don't want to wreck the flow or be boring.

    A-Z @ Elizabeth Twist

  8. Sucks that you're not feeling great.
    But definitely a relevant old post that will make us all think. :) Feel better!

  9. I think intrigue is important, but not necessarily in the first line. It can be quite confusing if something interesting is happening but you don't know where or to whom.

    I also think setting is important but easily overdone. It's much easier to describe the setting to excess than to have a dramatic scene.

    I would say, though, that having all three on the first page would be ideal. I'm surprised it happened so rarely.

    Very interesting and thought provoking post.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough