Why do written works have to start with something that captures the reader’s attention immediately? We novice writers are told repeatedly that in order to get a book to sell, we have to grab the reader’s attention with a boffo line or sentence. This is because, we are told, readers are a fickle group and will not read into a book or even into the first chapter unless we capture their imagination right away. Especially nowadays, what with so many other things competing for everybody’s time and attention. Also, we are told, an agent or an editor won’t consider a book if it doesn’t grab their attention in the first paragraph or so. But, why should that be? Is that really essential?
I like to compare books to music. A good book is like a great piece of music that takes you to an alternate world and leaves you there to explore on your own. But many great works of music start slowly and build toward a stupendous ending. Bolero, by Maurice Ravel, comes to mind in this category. Even as I write this, I’m listening to a piece by American composer Joseph Curiale called Wind River (I am). It, like the Ravel, starts slowly and quietly, and builds to a fantastic and masterful ending with drums and brass and all that sort of stuff. Other pieces, too numerous to mention, do the same. It’s not an unknown or unrealistic technique in music. Like, for example, the “Invasion Theme,” in Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, which starts with a simple theme and builds to a martial ending.
Of course, musical compositions are much shorter than books. A great symphony may take 45 to 60 minutes in performance, (the Shostakovich symphony mentioned above is about 75 minutes and that’s long for a symphony) and an opera is considered long if it runs four or five hours (some of Richard Wagner’s operas are that long), but a reader may spend several days or weeks enjoying a book. It’s also true that some great symphonies, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, do start big, with a entrance that grabs the listener right away. But not all. And I maintain that isn’t entirely necessary.
I have tried in all my books (currently unpublished) to write a beginning that snags the reader’s attention and induces him/her to read on, and then buy the book. I have to, if I want to get it published. (For me, that’s the hardest part of writing a novel.) Even if I self-published my novels, the reality of the situation is that books sell on the basis of the first several lines or first chapter. I admit that I, too, look at the first few lines of a book when I pull it off the shelf when considering whether to buy it. It’s a fact of life. Yet, it doesn’t have to be. A book that starts slowly should have just as much chance as one that starts with fireworks. But it’s not likely to get published, or even read. If listeners are willing to accept a slow beginning in a musical composition, why should readers not be content with the same in a book?