Archive | 1:42 pm

Revisiting the Ten Second Rule

17 Jul

I was asked a rather interesting question the other day.  A friend of mine asked me if all novels must begin with a Big Bang to capture the attention of the readers. She was basically asking about The Ten Second Rule, my name for the fact that you have about ten seconds to convince a potential reader that your book is worth their time, so that opening paragraph better be a doozie!

But does that mean you need to start with a spectacular explosion, killing, or spine-tingling scene?

No!

A Big Bang can simply be spectacular writing, writing so good that a potential reader would be foolish to set your book back on the shelf.  “To Kill A Mockingbird” comes to mind immediately.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

There is no Big Bang with the opening paragraph in that book.  The same is true with “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale pink in the red country and white in the gray country.”

No slam-bang there either.  What we do see, in both examples, is just enough of a hint of impending doom…or impending chaos…to entice us to continue reading.  The tone is brilliantly set in each example.  We are given just enough of an appetizer that we really want to taste the main dish.

They are both brilliant in their simplicity.

So yes, the Ten Second Rule still applies, but that doesn’t mean someone has to die to accomplish it.

REMEMBERING BACK

A baseball coach I had back when I was fourteen or fifteen told me once that the most important pitch of the game was the first pitch.  I guess it was his version of the Ten Second Rule.  He counseled me to make that first pitch purposely wild, either a foot over the head of the batter or a foot behind him, just close enough to get his attention, and just wild enough to plant that seed of doubt in the batter’s mind, so he didn’t spend too much time getting comfortable with that bat in his hand.

Just something for all of you to think about.

WALK SOFTLY BUT CARRY A BIG STICK

That was my Dad’s way of approaching a day.  He was not one for grandiose gestures or statements.  He did not brag or showboat, but if push came to shove, he was a good guy to have backing you up.  He was a perfect example of low-key in tone, and he would have loved the opening paragraphs of Lee and Steinbeck.

Me, I prefer killing someone to begin my novels.

Whatever floats your boat!

Have a great day!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”