The Opening Chapter Makes a Promise

From Kill Zone Blog: The Opening Chapter Reveals a Secret Vow

Except it’s not a secret. It’s actually an explicit promise: Here’s what the story is about. Here’s the main character. Here’s the problem. Here’s the setting.

This is the beginning of the linked post:

[This opening was] gripping, tense, love the story rhythm, the way he pauses at just the right moment. I could not flip the pages fast enough. Lovin’ every second of it! And then… In the next chapter, I find out it was all a dream.

Ouch. Yes, that would inspire a certain tendency toward Kindle-Hurling, though I trust we would all resist the impulse.

The post then goes on, now speaking of a different book:

We learn the protagonist is a child and her older sister is rescuing her from an imminent threat. …. the author did a terrific job of showing the action. Finally, I could sink into a gripping read. Or so I thought. …The next chapter consisted of pages and pages of backstory. No plot, only backstory. The premise still intrigued me, so I kept reading. Then I hit a flashback that dragged on for several pages. The worst part? It added nothing to the main storyline. … in Chapter 2, I read more pages and pages of backstory and another flashback. The next chapter was equally disappointing, with more pages of backstory and a third (fourth?) flashback. I lost count.

Whiplashed from being thrown forward, then backward, I couldn’t take it anymore and closed the book. A good premise will only take you so far. At some point, you need to deliver on the promise you made to the reader.

Bold is in the original. And yes. Also, by “at some point,” what we really mean is “pretty darn soon.”

This is reminding me of a similar phenomenon — the thing where you open the book and there’s this exciting first chapter, and then the protagonist gets killed and you start over with a different protagonist.

That, to me, feels like the same kind of broken promise. Here is the story! It’s about this protagonist! WHOOPS, FOOLED YOU. I don’t think that’s funny or cute or … I’m not sure what the author is actually going for. Shock? What that sort of bait-and-switch novel opening actually produces is disengagement, at least for me. I tolerate that only in murder mysteries and only because it’s so ordinary in that genre that it’s not a surprise. Even there, I don’t necessarily care for it.

This post ends by asking how many chapters you read before DNF a novel. I would actually sort of like to see a survey on that question with respondents categorized by age. I know that I used to give a novel more time; I know that I used to finish novels that I didn’t really like. I finished a few that seriously turned me off for one or another reason. I remember that, but I look back on it with real puzzlement. Why? Why did I do that to myself? There’s no shortage of other novels.

These days, I don’t think I give most novels a whole chapter before making a DNF decision. It’s more like a few pages — unless I have reason to go on farther than that. Reasons that matter: I trust the author, or someone I trust recommended the novel. Oh, and sometimes I can tell it’s just me; I’m not in the mood for that novel right now, but there’s a good chance I will be later. But overall, I usually give up on a novel before reaching the end of the first chapter.

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8 thoughts on “The Opening Chapter Makes a Promise”

  1. In the beginning, when I was a kid and internet books were not a thing… I tried to finish everything I ever started.

    Then I read a truly awful book with an ending that still makes me angry.

    These days, with so many choices I literally don’t have time to even read everything I LIKE…. if I like your character, or your premise, or your voice, or something else really grabs me, I’ll give it a lot more leeway than I would if I’m not getting grabbed, but I’m dropping things a lot quicker. And since so much of what I’m reading is web novels/free on the internet (a genre that lives or dies by how consistently you can keep the reader engaged, and the presence of per-chapter comments can help an author realize when he’s going off track), I have a lot less space for new-to-me writers who require I buy the book to figure out where it goes.

    I also review every book I read so when I dislike something, I have a record of why so I don’t try THAT again. :)

  2. Covid has been hard on my reading habit. I used to read all sorts of books and even enjoyed grim-dark to a certain extent. Now, I cannot read anything unless it promises a happy ending. So, I have not been picking up fantasy (unless it’s from an author I know) nor sci-fi (again unless it’s a known author) let alone mystery (which I used to enjoy). Now, it’s a lot of re-reads (I’ve re-read all of Lois McMaster Bujold twice in 3 years, Liaden series 2x, Megan Whalen Turner 3x, Martha Wells 2x, etc.) and I would put down books and DNF a whole lot (within a few pages — I do try to read at least 1 chapter if not 2). The problem is that I am unable to even start a novel that I bought (because I am pretty sure I will love it) because it feels like too much work.

    I have to see if how I feel after I go on a first vacation in 3 years in April. :)

  3. The bait-and-switch authors who kill the protagonist at the end of the prologue or chapter 1 tend to protest that “it makes sense when you get to the end of the book.” They don’t seem to understand that some people (self included) see no point in getting to the end of the book. I no longer trust the author to tell a good story.
    It seems a childish trick, really, along the lines of “oh ha ha there’s a cliffhanger, you’ll have to buy the next book to find out how it ends.” Not only do I not buy the next book, I don’t buy /any/ book from that author again.

    Not that I have strong feelings on the subject or anything. :)

  4. This indeed is the type of book not to be set aside lightly.
    I recently bought for (99c) that other kind of poison-pen-worthy book, just for the opportunity of writing a book review. Tonstant weader, I fwowed up.

  5. Every time I reread the first books in Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson series I am disappointed because she kills off what I though was going to be a main character right in the beginning. I LIKED that character! He didn’t have much page time but I liked him. And it takes away something from a book and series that I otherwise really enjoy.

    Maybe that’s a reason I often don’t like murder mysteries. It feels like a pretty commonly used recipe – build an opening scene around a character and then kill ‘em. Yuck. I get invested in characters pretty quickly. It hurts when they are appealing and then they are gone.

    I admit that if I read the first chapter and really like it, I will stick with the book a long ways before I give up on it. But then I am much more likely to remember the author and book as a disappointment than I would had I dropped it after a few pages.

  6. I used to read the first fifty pages of a book to give it a chance, but the pandemic has changed that. I’m much less patient now. If I don’t know an author I’ll give them a chapter or less. My kindle has changed things too because I’ll get a kindle sample and see if that impresses me enough to read more of the book.

    I once tried a book that had beautiful, engaging writing and an interesting setting, but the author killed off not only the first viewpoint character, not only the second, but the third as well. It made me so angry and I’ve never been willing to try a book by that author since.

  7. I gave up on Mercy Thompson altogether, when a character I liked (same character Mary liked?) was killed off in book one.

  8. @Htet, you’re definitely not alone in your reading capacity/appetite being impacted by stress and anxiety. I’m in a very similar situation. I read an article, I think last year (?) that said that part of it is that the parts of the brain that get invested in new characters are the parts that also let you make new friends, and that pandemic-ness can burn that out. I thought that was an interesting theory, although I’m not sure if it matches what I feel or not.

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