Nov 19, 2012

The Rule of Three

When it comes to books I consider myself fairly flexible. I like fantasy, and YA. I like historical fiction and memoirs. I like mystery, and philosophy, and satire. I enjoy a comfortable and quick summer flick. I cuddle up with warm and enveloping literature. Unfortunately, I cannot say I haven't met a book I didn't like. I have; so many of them in fact. The trouble with this is I usually end up sucking it up and sticking it out until the end, hoping against hope that it gets better. I yearn for it to pull through. Its like rooting for the underdog who is never going to win. There the book is staggering along, spinning happily in loop-dee-loops, and never crossing the finish line. Then there I am getting angrier and angrier, more and more frustrated, willing for end to come and dreading it when I finally get there and realize how much energy, time, and encouragement I have wasted. The madness has to stop! So finally, after years and years of reading books, I have developed a system. It is my rule of three.

I do not judge a book by its cover, or even by the summary on the back. Instead I simply use my rule of three. I read the first three chapters and in those three chapters three things must, absolutely happen. I know for some three chapters is much to long to toil in a bad book. For these people often the first paragraph will make or break the story. For others three is not long enough, they need eight or ten. Still for others, as I used to be, they read the whole dang thing and then decide. Not me! Not anymore.

When I read a book I consider my own experience as a (completely unpublished) writer, my studies as an English major, and my personal taste. I know it takes guts and courage to get your writing out there. It also takes publishers, editors, and even managers to get your manuscript to print. It takes hard work, late nights, and organization. I appreciate all of this. Because of these circumstances I felt that once I started the book I was in a pact with the author to finish it. This unspoken agreement made me feel guilty for not giving the entire work a chance. Though I do respect what it takes to be published, I now realize that does not mean I have to finish the book, especially because anything can now be electronically published for a Kindle or Nook edition. Thus, to determine whether or not I will be a committed reader to the end, I judge the first three chapters and look for three things specifically.

First: I need to have found a connection to the hero(s) of our story. I don't mean, "I'm and girl and she is a girl, so now I have to read this whole book to the end." No, not at all. That would be disastrous, in fact. I mean something a little more deep seated. I need to find an emotional turmoil that connects us, a human experience linking us together, or a common set of characteristics that would make us friends. Basically I need to feel invested in the characters or circumstances. Three chapters is plenty of time to establish this connection, nab my attention, and urge me to solider on and see how things turn out.

Second: The plot must develop. I seriously cannot stand a book when the first three chapters merely set the stage. These books take eons to get through, and I do not have the time to spare for such an endeavor. I do not need to know the hue of the lamp shade sitting atop a battered table on the left of the threadbare armchair that was purchased at a flea market in Brooklyn thirty-three years ago by a characters brother's, aunt's, sister's boyfriend from Germany who only came to the States to start a flower shop and fall in love. "Just stop it right now," I want to scream at these pages, "and tell me where this story is going for pity's sake!" Put me in the action, take some steps forward, and get a move on. If this happens in the first three chapters then we are good. I do not need an explosion of events, but I need to at least have a heading and linear movement forward by the end of three chapters.

Third: The character interaction must be believable in context of the story. I don't care if I am reading about aliens, fairies, or talking panda bears. In a novel the lead characters should not fall desperately in love after a brief exchange in the street within the first three chapters.  In a novel the lead characters should not get shot in the patella, sent to the hospital, and fall in love with the head nurse within the first three chapters. So, so many of the books I have lately started often result in me giving them an eye roll and thinking, this would never happen, ever, in this world or any other. Don't get me wrong, I have imagination and don't mind flying elephants if that is the context of the story. I can believe that. However, I cannot believe a character involved in a kidnapping, then car chase, then bank robbery will suddenly fall in love with her captor and join his team of ex-cons; severing all ties with her friends, family, and livelihood to go gallivanting around the continental United States. If this happens within the first three chapters I am out.

There you have it, my simple rule of three when starting a new read. I require only connection, development, and believe-ability. If these three things happen in the first three chapters then I am required, by my personal code of readerly ethics, to keep going until the end. Only then will I make my final decision regarding the merit of those pages. If however, one or even all, gasp, of these rules are broken within the first three chapters, I am no longer obligated to fulfill my role as reader and will stop immediately. No benefit of the doubt and no second chances.

So what are your rules for starting a new book and when do you decide enough is enough?

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