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.”

 

24 Responses to “Revisiting the Ten Second Rule”

  1. marlenebertrand July 17, 2018 at 1:56 pm #

    These are very fine examples of your Ten Second Rule. It is amazing, though, how long ten seconds can be when reading a badly-written book. But that last comment never applies to you, Bill. Your books draw me in and I have a difficult time putting them down untill I have read to the end.

    • Billybuc July 17, 2018 at 5:30 pm #

      I greatly appreciate that, Marlene. Your kind words were just what I needed today. Thank you my friend.

  2. Greg Boudonck July 17, 2018 at 2:01 pm #

    Enticement… Yes Bill. Great post today my friend. I always try to entice the reader within 10 seconds.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • Billybuc July 17, 2018 at 5:30 pm #

      Thanks a bunch, Greg. Blessings to you always.

  3. Mike July 17, 2018 at 2:13 pm #

    Hello Bill – A couple of great examples that outline some remarkable exceptions to the ten second rule. As writers we all must practice the art of writing. Killing someone in the opening lines works also. Always a treat to visit, Artistry with Words.

    • Billybuc July 17, 2018 at 5:29 pm #

      Thanks Mike! Some day I’ll try a novel where I don’t kill someone on a regular basis.

  4. divalounger July 17, 2018 at 3:34 pm #

    When I read The Book Thief, I knew in the first couple of sentences that I loved the writing and to me, the subject matter could have been anything–it is all about the writing–and I still love that book

    • Billybuc July 17, 2018 at 5:28 pm #

      it is all about the writing, Audrey, and I will always believe that. Thank you!

  5. Manatita4 July 17, 2018 at 6:07 pm #

    Too well known authors with rather long paragraphs. I suppose what matters is that they made it! Some say both Belgium and Croatia played better than France, but France won the world cup. Interesting bit of Artistry with words.

    • Billybuc July 17, 2018 at 10:26 pm #

      And there is a message in that World Cup victory for sure, Manatita! Thank you always!

  6. Sageleaf July 18, 2018 at 1:37 am #

    There’s also the 10-second rule for food on the floor, too. HAHA! Drop a carrot? Meh…10 seconds not passed? It’s perfectly fine! Hehe.
    No really, 10 seconds for a first impression. 10 seconds to heat up a roll in the microwave. 10 seconds can be extremely important.
    But really, what I love about this post is that it contains so much wisdom, Big Bro style. 🙂 I always love your posts. I hope you have a great week!

    • Billybuc July 19, 2018 at 1:40 pm #

      Sheez, Lil Sis, I thought it was five seconds for food. LOL I’ve been way too fast in picking up those spills.

      Thanks for the laugh…and for always being here…hugs!

  7. phoenix2327 July 18, 2018 at 11:04 am #

    Great suggestion, Bill. This is about the only rule I pay attention to anymore. After years of reading advice, hints and tips I’ve learned writing by the rules is guaranteed to make my writings so dull and uninventive, I can’t hit the delete button fast enough. I write what’s in my head, figure out how to attract the reader’s attention. Then I go back and rewrite the intro accordingly.

    I don’t do outlines because 1) they can be limiting and 2) my characters usually hijack the story anyway. lol

    Have a great day, Bill.

    • Billybuc July 19, 2018 at 1:41 pm #

      I love it Zulma…hijack the story…yes they do, those devils!

      Happy Thursday to you!

  8. Sarah Potter Writes July 18, 2018 at 4:02 pm #

    I think that if a writer can provide sufficient hooks in the first page to make the reader want to turn to the second page, that’s the most important thing. Whether it be characterisation, setting, action, or a bit of all three, it doesn’t matter.

    You know I don’t abide by the rules and neither do many of the writers I read. Having said that, publishers do seem to have become less tolerant of new authors not following the rules, while allowing their older established authors to get away with a lot more. Stephen King seems to write whatever he likes and his novels start quite slowly, drawing the reader into whatever world he’s creating. For me, characterisation is more important than anything. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the story.

    Amen to that. I’m spouting off bigtime today.

    Wishing you a wonderful week, my dear friend.

    • Billybuc July 19, 2018 at 1:43 pm #

      Spout off all you want, Sarah! I love hearing from you. Perhaps sufficient hooks are a subtle ten second rule…as long as the reader wants to turn that page, the writer has done their job.

      Thank you and a very Happy Thursday to you.

      • Sarah Potter Writes July 27, 2018 at 3:21 pm #

        I already commented on this post last week, but forgot to ‘like’ it, so have returned to do so and read other’s comments in more depth. I’ve been examining the opening pages of books on my shelf since reading this post and the classics, as well as contemporary literary novels tend to start more slowly than certain of the genres. You share the dead body thing with the very well-known and successful Scandi crime writer Jo Nesbo, so you’re in good company!

      • Billybuc July 27, 2018 at 4:02 pm #

        Thanks for returning, Sarah! You are one writer I would love to meet in person. Have a great weekend, dear friend.

  9. 1authorcygnetbrown July 19, 2018 at 10:12 pm #

    Sometimes in my first drafts I start the story earlier than the final publication, but I don’t think that I have ever started at the beginning of major action. Maybe just before, but never during.

    I’ve killed people in the middle, at the end, and at the beginning of my novels too. Not that I don’t like the characters. Some of them are my favorites!

    • Billybuc July 20, 2018 at 1:51 pm #

      Thank you, Donna, for sharing your procedures and thoughts. We all learn when we all share.

  10. Lawrence Hebb July 19, 2018 at 10:53 pm #

    Bill
    ‘Walk softly and carry a big stick’ I know a nation that uses that stance as their international diplomacy, and the world’s attention never leaves Israel for long!
    Must say, I had to keep reading the two opening paragraphs, they just draw you in, like all great writing should.

    • Billybuc July 20, 2018 at 1:50 pm #

      Thank you so much, Lawrence! Yes, for sure, Israel is always in the forefront, even when there seems to be no news of it.

  11. Andrea Stephenson July 21, 2018 at 1:53 pm #

    Very interesting thoughts Bill and great examples. I don’t need a big bang to get me hooked into a novel, but as you say, there still has to be something, great writing or something that speaks to you so that you have the motivation to read on.

    • Billybuc July 21, 2018 at 2:51 pm #

      Thank you Andrea! Great writing will trump a big bang any old day, or so I believe.

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