The number of novels published every year is so great that Dr. Boli cannot read most of them. Indeed, he often excuses himself from reading twenty-first-century fiction by saying that he has not caught up with the nineteenth century yet, which is strictly true.

Nevertheless, he will occasionally read a current novel. How, you may ask, does he decide whether a current novel is worth his time?

It may surprise you to hear that Dr. Boli can tell by the first three words of the book whether he will enjoy the rest of the novel. It is a very simple test: Are the first three words a character’s first and last name followed by a verb? If so, Dr. Boli will set the book aside unread.

Doubtless you will leap up to tell him how many great and inspiring works of fiction he has missed by applying this completely arbitrary standard. Probably you, the reader from whose ears cartoon jets of steam are erupting right now, have written a novel, perfect in every detail, whose first three words are “Zachary Mulligan turned,” and they are the only three words with which the story could possibly begin.

Dr. Boli will not contradict anyone who tells him that he has missed a number of very good books by applying his first-three-words test. He will only say that he has been spared an enormous number of very, very bad ones. When time for reading is limited, one must find a way of apportioning it, and Dr. Boli has found one that works well for him.


  1. Ann Othuerflop says:

    Do you apply this “first-three-words” test to the introductions (i.e. “Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote”), and prefaces of novels, or do you only apply it to the first three words of Chapter 1?

  2. Interesting. Some friends of mine and I once wrote a collaborative novel together. It was one of those books with a dozen characters widely separated in space, who each had their own plot threads, but whose paths over the course of the story crossed over each other at various points as previously-separated characters met and interacted and then went their separate ways again. Each of us authors was responsible for one character’s adventures, and we’d closely collaborate when two of our characters were going to meet and interact, and more loosely coordinate things when our characters were not directly involved with each other at the moment. Each week, we’d each submit our character’s latest adventures to a central editor, who would stitch the submissions together into a chapter, which would be sent back to all the authors to read. When reading the finished chapter, we found it quite helpful if each subchapter section dealing with each character in turn would, if not within the first three words, at least somewhere within the first paragraph or two, mention its central character by name or otherwise make clear which of the several plot threads had just been picked back up.

    It was fun both as a writer and reader to SOMETIMES mess with the reader’s head by purposefully obscuring things a bit, changing the narrative focus from the “main” characters to some supporting character for a brief stretch, but in general terms, when dealing with a story with a large cast of characters, it is usually a good idea to make clear which of them the narrative is focusing on at the moment.

  3. Ann Othuerflop says:

    “Waking up in his grave, Zachary Mulligan turned out not to be dead.” – would you read a novel that began like this?

    • Jared says:

      The appropriate way to open such a novel is:

      “The thing to know about Zachary Mulligan is that he was not actually dead. This realization dawned on him as something of a surprise, though not as the disappointment it would have doubtless been regarded by the mourners, the gravediggers, and the nice old parson who went through all that trouble, and for what?”

      • Ann Othuerflop says:

        I know:

        “Waking up in his grave, Zachary Mulligan turned on his radio to the sound of The Police singing, “Every Breath You Take”. Gasping at the severe irony of this song, he changed the station and listened to “The Sound of Silence”. Despite being in this moment of extreme clarity he still did not fully understand what Paul Simon meant by, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls”.

  4. Lars Walker says:

    My latest novel begins, “We have no use for barns anymore, but are ashamed to tear them down.” I thought that rather good, and am delighted to find that it passes the Boli test.

    I would have used, “Every happy family is the same, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but I understand some 19th Century Russian beat me to it, as Dr. Boli may or may not know. Also, it’s a patent falsehood.


  5. Sean says:

    Scripture itself comes dangerously close to falling into this trap.

    If we translated Genesis 1 as “God Almighty created….”

  6. Greybeard says:

    I am currently reading a novel that was recommended by Lars Walker’s blogging partner. I am now a bit confused as to whether I should be reading it. The prologue began with a prepositional phrase before the character and verb that introduced the location where the character was doing his verb thing. But then the first chapter only had one word before the character’s name. That was his rank. How many words must separate the name from the beginning of the first paragraph to make a novel readable?

    Now, having mistakenly made it past the first page and another hundred or so, I am reminded why I should stick with 19th century literature. The author ruins a perfectly good story by inserting three must-haves of modern literature.

    First, the characters must use crude language even if the objects involved are not anatomically capable of the actions attributed to them.

    Second, the characters must take the name of a Christian deity in vain. Even though the novel is set in a distant future where all religion is viewed as a social construct and athiesim is axiomatically understood as the only true alternative, all surprises are met with the utterance of a name first introduced in the ancient Gospels. Why doesn’t anybody ever yell, “Oh Buddha!” when they hit their thumb with a hammer?

    Third, Characters must speak of the normality of all politically correct perversions.

  7. I don’t know how to do a ‘pingback’ – so I’ll just note here that I’ve linked to this post of yours, Dr. Boli, on literary criticism.

    If only I had known this rule of thumb a few weeks ago, when I presented a paper on telling a story . . .

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  8. eveningperson says:

    In any imagined situation in the far future (or the distant past) the characters will not be speaking 21st century English and will not necessarily have 21st century ideas. So the author is translating into contemporary idiom for his readers.

    Remembering this will not make a bad novel, play or movie good, but may help one keep one’s calm.

  1. […] Our frequent correspondent “Greybeard” complains of a current science-fiction novel: […]

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