Friday, November 18, 2011

Is Bigger Always Better?

A new author is taught many tools to attract a potential reader’s attention.  After the book is written, comes the sometimes difficult and time-consuming task of making your book stand out among the many other selections available for readers to choose from.  Careful planning and attention must be given to every aspect of the book’s packaging.  Finally the title is intriguing, the cover looks great, and the blurb is set to entice.  Then comes the big reveal.  Page one, chapter one, and paragraph one.

We are encouraged to make sure that the first paragraph is as dynamic as we can possibly make it.  The book has passed the initial screening and the reader has picked it up to flip to the first page or, as is the case with e-books, clicked on the “look inside” or downloaded a sample.  Writers know that this first paragraph can be make or break time.  What lies therein will either spur the reader on to buy the book, or place it back on the shelf and continue browsing.

So the challenge is to try to make that opening paragraph irresistible.  It must give enough information to make the reader want to find out more.  But at the same time, it can’t give away too much or the reader will have no reason to purchase.  To meet this challenge, it is often tempting to err on the side of caution and give too much information, rather than too little.  The reader has at least indicated an interest in our book and we don’t want to risk losing him, so we try to make that first paragraph pack a powerful punch.

I submit to you that, at least when speaking of opening paragraphs, bigger is not always better.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I have read some wonderful beginning paragraphs that took up almost half of the page.  I find nothing wrong with that.  When the information in long paragraphs are germane to the story and setting up what’s to come, this is perfectly acceptable and helpful.  I’m just saying that length is not always a necessity to pique the reader’s interest.

Case in point, the Stone Barrington mystery series by Stuart Woods.  I love these books.  Now Mr. Woods could have written a first paragraph thusly:

Stone Barrington, between cases, was sitting in a restaurant named Elaine’s.  He was sitting with Dino, his former partner on the police force, and now unofficial partner in solving off-the-book crimes.  They were attuned to the mood in the room because something almost always happened when they were together. Blah, blah, blah.

Instead, Mr. Woods (at least in the Stone Barrington mysteries) invariably opens up with the same first paragraph:

Elaine’s.  Late.

Yes, believe it or not, a two-word paragraph.  Mr. Woods is a bestselling author.  Now I can’t speak for the rest of the readers, but let me share how those two words made me a lifelong fan.  I was browsing through the bookshelves at the library.  I usually try the books of authors with whom I am unfamiliar, by checking them out at the library first, if their books are available there, because you don’t lose anything if you don’t like it.  And in this economy…well you know the deal.

So back to the story.  I was browsing the shelves in the mystery section and, being the books are in alphabetical order, was near the end of the selections when I saw the name Stuart Woods.  Didn’t know the name.  The cover was nice, the title okay, but I was near the end of the mystery section and determined to get something to read for the weekend.  I picked up the book and flipped to the first page.  “Elaine’s. Late.”

That short two-word paragraph instantly hooked me.  Why?  Well first I was impressed that an author thought he could get away with a two-word opening paragraph simply because I’d never seen that before.  So I was interested by the new and different.

I was also drawn by the fact that, although I am a South Carolinian, I’d lived in New York City for a few years due to a job transfer, and was familiar with Elaine’s.  I’d never eaten there but had seen it from the outside and was always in awe of the number of A-list celebrities Elaine’s regularly attracted.  You couldn’t pick up a society page without reading that so-and-so had been seen at Elaine’s.  So that word had me imagining that I would be given a glimpse into a behind-the-scenes world along with my mystery.

Then the second word of the paragraph “Late.”  Well I was raised in a culture that taught us from a young age that not too much good happens late.  Such southern sayings as “The devil comes out after midnight”, “Nothing good happens after midnight”, “Good girls aren’t seen outside after the street lights come on” were common cautions from our grandmothers, mothers, and aunts.  Well, as is the case with most things we’re taught to avoid, that just makes the allure that much more compelling.  So while I might not have had the gumption to tiptoe in to Elaine’s late, I most certainly wanted to read about what happened in “Elaine’s. Late.”

I went on to read every Stuart Woods book the library had, and then, you guessed it, I went on to buy the others.  What had started out as something so random as making my way down to the “w” section led me to become a lifelong fan of Stuart Woods’ books.  Yes big can be good, but it’s not the only game in town.  Those two words left much to my imagination and compelled me to see what the author had to say in his stories.

By the way, I think that this was pretty effective as a branding technique also.  Whether intended or not by Mr. Woods, that short paragraph became a brand I associated with Mr. Woods, regardless of who might use it in the future.   Mr. Woods has written other things besides the Stone Barrington mysteries and I’m sure they’re good also.  However, I’m still working my way through these.  It’s gotten so that I don’t even skim the blurb anymore.  When I see a new book of Stuart Woods’ and see “Elaine’s. Late.” on the first page, I know I’m in for a good read.

And that, my friend, is the result of a reader (me) having developed a faith in a particular author’s work.  This leads to reader loyalty.  I identify that paragraph with Mr. Woods, which to me equals a fantastic read. What say you?  Do your prefer lengthy paragraphs in your writing or reading? Or does it not matter as long as the paragraph is good? And what about your own works?  Have you developed a unique style or trait that your reader can immediately bond with and identify as yours?


  1. Wow, Pam, great post and excellent questions that I never thought of before (even as a writer). I do know that when something goes on and on with too much detail in the beginning, I often lose interest. But if it's an author that's good and that I trust, I can get lost in a long paragraph. So, I guess it depends.

    I don't know if I have developed my unique voice yet. I'm working on that.

  2. Thanks TC. I'm still working on finding my particular writing style and length also. As for content, I enjoy writing dramas and mysteries. I always want to leave the reader with an uplifting message that even in the midst of the worst situations they can imagine, God can and will work things out. I like to integrate that message into the story so it doesn't come across too preachy. :)