When reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (which I reviewed here), I almost didn’t make it past the first chapter. Not because the writing was bad, or the hook uncompelling, but for a variety of other reasons. I wanted to examine what almost made me close the book, because if they could get past all of Neil Gaiman’s beta readers, they could slip past me as well.

  • The initial point of view. We start The Graveyard Book primarily sharing the perspective of a murderer. Not only has he walked into a house and killed three people, but his knife and hand are wet with blood and he’s on his way up the stairs to kill the youngest, a toddler boy. This is not the kind of writing I generally read, and this is not the kind of narration I want to encounter, particularly in a book written for children.

I seriously thought about putting it down, just because of how creepy it was. Thankfully, the book moved on from the murderer to the boy and stuck with the boy and his ghost family and friends for most of the rest of the book. We would have brief relapses to check up on the murderer, but nothing more, which was nice. However, if I’d read the first few pages online, where I didn’t have the physical book to urge me to keep reading, I probably would never have read this book.

  • For the plot to work, the toddler has to leave his room and get outside, so the murderer leaves the door somewhat open. This bothered me, because if an outsider was to see an open door on a house, I would think that would be suspicious. If I saw a neighbor’s door open, and all was dark inside, I’d think something strange was going on, and I’d at least note it…and the group behind the murder wants to be able to hush the whole thing up. So I struggled with suspending my disbelief about that detail.

I also struggled with the toddler going downstairs instead of climbing further upstairs (he has to go down, plot-wise, to reach the front door). It was explained that the boy hadn’t mastered going up, but could easily go down, yet according to a study published in 2006 regarding infant behavior and development, “[c]hildren typically mastered stair ascent (mean age=10.97 months) several months after crawling onset and several weeks prior to descent (mean age=12.53 months). Even if the toddler was one of the rare learners who did it the other way, by eighteen months he should have mastered both. It seemed like the plot could’ve worked around this without triggering a skeptical mom-response on what the baby would do when faced with stairs.

How the toddler gets past the murderer, without his seeing him, was never explained. If he left before the murderer reached the stairs, then he should have seen the diaper that he left behind, and if he left later, they would’ve passed on the stairs. Details like this, which just don’t make sense or are a stretch to be believable pull me, as a reader, out of the plot and make me start wondering.

  • Unfulfilled promises. In the first chapter, we have mist acting almost like a character. It swirls in through the open door, past the murderer, and it hides the boy when he goes outside. This prepared me for mist either being a character, who could move in what appeared to be suspended water droplets, or for it to be some kind of symbolic element throughout the story. After the beginning, though, it never shows up in that same way, which disappointed me. My expectations had been raised, and they never got fulfilled.

There are other possible problems a first chapter could have, but because these were in something that was otherwise very well-written, they stuck out at me. If an award-winning book can still turn off readers, then the rest of us should be wary. We don’t always have a fan base who has read our other works and trusts that things will turn out fine, and we can’t always rely on the cover to lure the reader past our narrative errors. The readers are weighing our work, word-by-word, and one wrong decision may tip the scale and close the covers for them forever.

Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by braindance, Creative Commons

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