Thursday, July 1, 2010

First Impressions

Reading thuRsday

I went to a writing conference last fall and had a session with an agent where we went over the first page from everyone in the group. Of the nine first pages we read, there was only one the agent said didn't have too many problems.

Reflecting on that experience, I'm increasingly convinced that it was an exercise of limited utility: if you're looking for problems, you can likely find something in just about anyone's 250-word sample, particularly if you read it without any other context.

Clearly, first impressions matter. Readers won't keep reading if the story doesn't start in an interesting place. Indeed, readers won't even pick up the book if nothing about it piques their curiosity or stirs their interest. But first impressions only matter to a point.

Malcolm Gladwell argues for first impressions in his book Blink. He calls it "rapid cognition" (which sounds better than "go with your gut"), and claims that our first reaction is often the right one. I suspect this is the case for agents and editors when looking at bad writing. But I'm not so sure it's true for good writing: can you tell how good something is from a one-page sample?

What if you want to do something that plays off of first impressions? When the pilot for Babylon 5 aired, I read a review from a critic who called it a ho-hum, me-too space opera with over-the-top characterization: the villain and the comic relief character were obvious. But over the course of the series, those two characters (and all the others) developed in ways perfectly consistent with their behavior in the pilot that completely contradicted the critic's first impressions. The payoff only came for those willing to get past their first impressions.

So what does this mean?

Well, as readers, you must resist the temptation to assume you know what the books is about after you read the first page or the first chapter.

And as writers, we've got to make things compelling enough to carry people past their first impressions.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /