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On the importance of a strong start

The Secret Keeper


I recently read a book which brought home to me in spades, the importance of having a strong start to a novel. The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton has a brilliant plot and the way she scripts the story line, with subtle hints from the beginning and numerous red herrings throughout, has the reader guessing until almost the end as to not only where she is taking the story but then, exactly how she is going to end it. That Kate Morton, one of my favourite contemporary authors, is an accomplished writer I don’t think is in doubt. Why is it then that I am having to coach people to stick with this book, which some describe as easy to put down.

It all seems to hinge on the fact that for almost the first half of this novel, there is little to grab the interest.  In this age of instant gratification, it seems that you have to grab the reader in the first chapter, the first page, if not the first line! The Secret Keeper is a slowly weaved story, the brilliance of which is only apparent towards the end of the book (or on a page by page reread analysis!).  The pace is slow to begin with, the main character is not sympathetique, the setting not interesting enough for some, and you wonder if Kate is stuck in a themed groove of family secrets and aged characters, as there is very little that is scintillating enough to keep you reading. But then about almost exactly halfway through, she throws you the first meaty bone and once you get your chomps into it, there is no letting go until the end!

It left me pondering about that all important need for a strong start to a novel, for I wonder, if this was Kate’s first book, what the reviews would have been like. She is successful enough for people to purchase on reputation alone but I have heard and read sufficient reviews that were it not for that reputation, many would have discarded the book before that important halfway mark and labelled it forgettable … which would have been a shame, for it is anything but!

I started to get cynical and wondered if the demand for an early hook was just another manifestation of our insatiable appetites, the ‘show me the money’ mentality that has pervaded our societies today. So I pulled out a number of novels from my shelves, classic and contemporaries alike and started reading that all important first line, first paragraph and realized that yes,  good books do draw you in from the start, knowledge that Kate demonstrated well enough in her first three novels but for some reason forgot with this most recent one.

While there are any number of ways to start a novel, I have noticed that the one liners are the most effective:

Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal.

In the first place, I suppose it was my parents’ fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta.

Nothing ever happens to me.

Of course I have secrets.

It started with a letter.

Last November, I had a nightmare.

The intruder came from beyond.

You get the picture.  From the very first, these one liners have the reader questioning  why, what, where.

Staring with a description of the setting seemed more old school and for me at any rate, worked less effectively unless there is something really unusual about the setting. The death knell is the use of descriptors such as ‘unassuming’, and phrases such as  ‘just by looking’ and ‘just so’. A very mediocre start and perhaps it was a rouse on Kate Morton’s part to lull the reader before the ‘event‘. But it would appear that the lull lasted a little too long and it had me running back to my manuscript to see if my first line prompts that all important question: why.

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