With the huge number of novels available these days, it’s important to grab your readers’ attention immediately or they may never read past the sample pages Amazon offers.
There’s lots of advice out there on writing those all-important opening lines – start with action, suggest something unusual, be controversial etc. – but I want to focus today on the physical structure of your sentences.
The inspiration for this post came about after I finished a really great book (see my review of THE HARVEST OF LIES here) and delved into my Kindle to find my next read. Yes, I have a (huge) TBR list, but I tend not to read in order of arrival, but instead sort through them until I find what suits my mood of the time, and after reading a really well written book, I wanted something comparable.
Sadly, the next book I opened, one that I’d thought from the blurb would be right up my alley, didn’t live up to my expectations. I read the first sentence and stopped.
PASSIVE CONSTRUCTION is a real turn off for me, and I know I’m not alone.
What do I mean by passive construction? Use of words such as ‘was’, ‘had’, ‘had been’ ‘begun to’, and the like – unnecessary words that slow the reading experience. Obviously past tense requires some of these, but when writing in present tense, why use them?
For example, here is that sentence that bounced me right out of a book I was looking forward to reading:
“The scream made Taka drop the snowball she had just been aiming at her friend’s head…”
Action? Yes. But the passive construction makes it wordy and distancing. Why not:
“The scream made Taka drop the snowball she’d aimed at her friend’s head…”
See what I mean? Crisper, more direct, less words. So simple.
This might seem picky, but I’ve found as I write more, and as the huge choice of books available these days means I no longer finish everything I begin, I rarely have the patience to read books that start with an unpromising opening sentence like this.
I did push myself to read the first 2 pages before giving up, but in those 2 pages I encountered a couple more instances, and that was enough for me to stop and go looking for another book.
These were both on page 2:
“Once she had cleared her vision…” – why not, simply “Once she cleared her vision…” ?
“In one move Mishi had dismounted from Taka’s shoulders and they had begun running in Rika’s direction.”
Why not: “In one move Mishi dismounted from Taka’s shoulders and they both ran towards Rika.”
The next book I picked out had a few instances of ‘were’ (“They were all huddled together…” – the ‘were’ is unnecessary) and ‘was’ (“the lady with the piercing eyes who was staring him straight in the eye…” would be more immediate as “the lady with the piercing eyes who stared him straight in the eye…”) but not enough to push me back from the narrative, so this one is my current read.
Active construction is about immediacy that grabs the reader and drags them into the story where passive construction slows things down and makes the reader feel more of an outside observer.
I am by no means an expert on the use of language, or, I hope, a writing snob. But as authors we must always be open to improving our craft, and using active construction is a point I learned a while ago, and something that now stands out as a sort thumb to me when I see writers using passive sentences when it would be easy and far more effective to use active construction.
How about you? What grates on you enough to reject a book in the first couple of pages?