I recently read two similar books.
Both were fantasy set in imagined worlds.
Both used two different points of views to tell the story.
After stripping away the details, both had similar plotlines in broad strokes (protagonists chased / hunted by bad guys).
Both were decently written.
But one was more compelling than the other.
One grabbed my attention from the first paragraphs and pulled me like a tidal wave, forcing me to read late into the night to finish it. The other took more time before being captured by the pages.
Although I enjoyed the latter book, its first chapter didn’t entice me in the same way as the other. For the former, the first page hooked me.
As a writer I wanted to know what made the difference between these two books.
Let me give you a sample of the first few sentences from each book:
“My big brother reaches home in the dark hours before dawn, when even ghosts take their rest. He smells of steel and coal and forge. He smells of the enemy.” – An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir
“Everything had gone horribly wrong. None of Safiya fon Hasstrel’s hastily laid plans for this holdup were unfolding as they ought.” – Truthwitch, by Susan Dennard
I noticed a few things immediately:
- The first example is written in first person point of view; the other, in third person;
- The first example is in present tense; the other, in past tense.
Could this account for the different experiences as a reader?
I would like to think not. Mostly because I think the choices of POV and verb tense should make no difference in quality if everything else is equal.
What else could it be? I re-read both first chapters again. In both books, we were introduced to the “evil” side of the story in the first chapter; both started with lots of action, placing the reader immediately into the thick of things.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
Did you notice this?
- In the first, we are hit with two elements in opposition; things that don’t quite go together and hit our curiosity button: brother and enemy. Why would this person’s brother smell like the enemy? Big brothers don’t smell like the enemy. That is wrong… potentially? Must read more to find out.
- In the second, there are no elements in conflict: it is not all that surprising that plans, hastily laid, are not working out. After all, that often happens with poor planning.
Hmmm… what else?
- In the first, the writer uses the words “big brother”. It implies closeness between two characters. Consider if the writer had used “older brother” instead. Already, the writer is setting up an emotion connection for the reader. Throughout the book, the protagonist does everything to try to help and save her brother and allows the reader to feel empathy and a connection to the main character.
- In the second, the protagonist is setting up a heist to steal money. No matter how entertaining, stealing money does not have the same emotional connection as saving family. Unless maybe you’re stealing money to save family… but that wasn’t shown in the first few sentences.
As a writer, reading books can give you insights into what works to help hook the reader. This month, take two similar books in the genre you are writing. Does one book pull you along more than the other? Can you figure out why? Reading can always help you become a better writer.