What a book promises in its first two pages
I have become obsessed with the idea that you can gauge, in a book's first two pages, what it will deliver in every subsequent page. This weekend Larry and I spent about an hour reading (aloud) the first two pages of our favorite (and less-than-favorite) books, and discussing how the expectations the author set in the first two pages correlated with the experiences we had as readers.
This sounds like an extremely complicated way of saying "if you don't like the first two pages of a book, you probably aren't going to like the rest of it," but it's not that simple.
Books actually promise things, and we can use those promises as a way to decide whether we want to keep reading.
Examples, as Larry once said, are necessary – so here we go.
The Dictionary of Lost Words
Let's start with Pip Williams' The Dictionary of Lost Words, since it's the next book on my to-read list:
Even if you don't read the first two pages very carefully, you can still assess the promise the book is making.
This will be a historical novel.
The sentences will be short; the paragraphs will be short; the scenes will be short.
You will not be asked to carry and sustain the story in your own mind; the words will take care of any necessary repetition.
If you read the first two pages more carefully, you'll notice that the story itself is also a repetition of sorts. A mother named Lily who is fading from memory. A paper thrown into a fire; a hand reaching in to retrieve it. Some words are more important than others.
We have read these words before. It will be a pleasure – the book promises – to read them again.
How the Light Gets In
The next-next book on my to-read list is Louise Penny's How the Light Gets In:
The sentences and paragraphs are still fairly short, but the story sustains itself past the first two pages.
This means that you will need to remember what you read as you continue... including where this character is in the present, what she is remembering in the past, and what she is fantasizing about in the future.
This book promises to take place in people's minds. Audrey Villeneuve's, for sure, but also your own. It promises to include familiar references – Leonard Cohen, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker – as external signposts. The metaphors we generate when we do not know how to create our own.
This, in itself, is a metaphor for Villenueve's mind; a signpost, you might say, for her character.
The book also promises a monster, a disaster, and a Christmas party.
Call Down the Hawk
I'm going to be studying with Maggie Stiefvater this summer, so let's take a look at the first two pages of Call Down the Hawk.
This story makes its promise in the first sentence.
Then it begins a sequence of lengthy paragraphs interrupted by single-line summaries, allowing you to recollect anything you didn't carry to the end of the narration. There are no clichés; in fact, there is nothing here you've seen before, unless you've been following these characters through Stiefvater's previous novels. Larry did not know the Lynch brothers, when I handed him the Dreamer Trilogy, and yet he was able to read the prologue without difficulty – though he did tell me it took more focus than he was anticipating – and begin the first chapter with a keen understanding of the three men who center this story.
"You have to pay attention to every word," he said, afterwards. "But it's worth it."
Shakespeare in the Park with Murder
Now we'll do one of mine. Here are the first two pages of the forthcoming Shakespeare in the Park with Murder:
Like the Stiefvater, this book promises lengthy paragraphs and a story that operates without a lot of visual breaks. The mind needs to be prepared to comprehend without pause, following the narrative as it shifts backwards and forwards. The first two sentences are the only two that take place in the present; the reader will need to remember, when we return to Ed and Larkin, that they are standing by a bunkbed.
It is unclear, on these first two pages, whether I will be the kind of writer who reminds them. There are no single-sentence summaries, the way there are in Call Down the Hawk; there are no pop-culture references and no repeated words. You'll need to pay attention to every detail, especially if you want to solve the mystery along with Larkin.
This book also promises a lot of nitty-gritty theater stuff, if you're interested in that kind of thing. ❤❤❤