Judging a story by its opening

coffeeem talks about Battlestar Galactica and being a female geek.

I haven’t watched the new Battlestar Galactica (though I have a lingering childhood fondness for the old show, even though I objectively know it wasn’t all that good), but what was interesting to me is how many people–in that discussion and in spin-off discussions elsewhere–have countered with, “You can’t judge the whole show by those first few episodes!”

But, umm, yes, you can. You totally can.

Someone in the discussion commented that this would be like judging a book based on the first chapter. And they’re right–it would.

And one can judge a book by it’s first chapter, and not be unfair in doing so.

To my mind, if the first few pages of a book aren’t successful–if they don’t provide compelling prose, and indications of three-dimensional characters and a compelling plot–then the book isn’t successful. This isn’t being unfairly judgmental; why should anyone be expected to keep reading if they’re not enjoying the book from the start? It’s the rare book that starts off weakly but then turns powerful enough to justify getting through the poorly-written parts. (One could argue that Lord of the Rings is one of those rare exceptions, though I’m less convinced of this now than I once was.)

I feel this way as a writer as well as a reader. If you don’t like my chapter 1, it doesn’t matter how good chapter 8 is, nor should it.

I don’t watch much television these days, but I did once, and it seems to me the same basic principles apply. I do remember, back in college, trying to watch the first few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and giving up because it was so awful. Later, lots of people told me, “But it got better in season 2.” (Or 3, I forget.)

Doesn’t matter. The opening of a story is part of a story as a whole, and everything else follows from and arcs from it. It can’t just be ignored. If the opening fails, everything else built upon it will always be a little shaky.

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