Every few weeks, I get an email with the first fifteen lines of an anonymous best seller. The idea is that I’m supposed to read the lines and decide if I was an agent (or editor) who’d received this submission, would I continue reading. And since the lines are anonymous, I’m not supposed to be swayed by the title or the author’s name. (Though, of course, you do know that normally it’s a NYT bestseller.)
|Photo by David Croker, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
Check out the ripples!
Most of the time, though not all, I would read further. Even books that aren’t in my genre preferences.
Before we ask why I’d keep reading, you might want to know why 15 lines (sentences). Why not the first chapter? It’s not to keep the email short. It’s not because of copyright issues. It’s not even to give action novels a leg up. It’s because most agents and editors decide within the first fifteen sentences whether or not they’re going to continue to read the novel. If you’re a writer, you have 15 lousy sentences to hook your fish. And that’s why so many novels start off in medias res or with a dead body or a cheating spouse—though I don’t believe that’s necessarily the answer. For example, I remember reading any opening to a book where the narrator was out mowing the yard in bikini (clearly the author had never had a mower kick up a rock at her) when a dead body fell from the sky. Now that’s a very bold, attention-getting opening. But really, how do you build tension after that?
And tension is the point. After reading lots of 15 sentences openings, I’ve noticed that they all have one thing in common, regardless of the genre...they are all very cleanly written and they all have a “ripple.”
Imagine an irenic lake. The surface is glass. This is what I mean by “cleanly written.” Every sentence is smooth—put together in the best way possible with the best choice of words. You hardly notice you’re reading. And then, the ripple. The glassy surface moves. A ring spreads out in the perfect pond. And you can’t help but think, “Is it a fish, is it a whale, or is it (wait for it) the Loch Ness monster?”
I suspect that’s what we as writers need to go for. You don’t need a body falling out of the sky. If the writing is strong and clean, a ripple is sufficient. The point of the ripple is to create tension. To show the reader that beneath the surface of this lake lurks something that will destroy the peace. It leaves the reader fretting, and it’s what drives him to the next fifteen lines. As the first ripple moves out, another begins, driving the reader to the next fifteen pages. And then, the next fifteen chapters.
And then, you have an audience.