This week, Steve McLain and I revisit the idea of first lines and apply the principles we discussed to the first pages. Rather than talking exclusively about the importance, this episode focuses more on how to put these pages together. You may listen to the episode below, or you can download the .mp3 here.
There are seven strategies for first lines, and by extension, first pages. These are to establish conflict, character, something unexpected, setting, voice, dialog and action, and the sampler platter.
If we think of the first pages of your novel as a fine dining experience offered to your reader, you can imagine the first line as the first impressions your reader will have upon walking into the restaurant. Your first words will set up an atmosphere of voice for your readers in the same way that the aroma of and decor of a restaurant will create certain expectations and anticipations for patrons of the establishment. The first page, however, serves as the appetizer. Here, we are presented with our first taste of the cuisine. We’ll see how the food is plated, smell the seasoning, and taste it’s complex flavor make-up. The first chapter is the main course. We have the same experience, but we see how the food is paired, how the textures compliment each other, etc.
When a reader picks up a book, they want to know that the time they’re planning on investing in this book will be well spent. To ensure them of this, it’s important to establish your “authorial authority.” You want to announce you’re credibility as a writer early on, and one of the best ways to do that is to be invisible as a writer. While the narrator is always visible, the author shouldn’t. Try to keep your prose free from personal agendas and didactic statements. Instead, let the story tell itself. For more information on this, read my post from forever ago on the invisible creator.
Another task of the first page is to set the context for the story. We should get a sense of the setting, a sense of the conflict. If not, we’re left with no sensory experience, no material to establish a fictive dream. Without context, the reader has no purpose continuing. Give us a sense of time and place and drama. We don’t need seventeen pages of description, but we need to have some. My first book didn’t follow this, and for six pages, I gave no sensory description, hoping the reader would feel as “confused as the character.” It’s fine to have a confused, disoriented character, but the reader should always be grounded, so we can understand the confusion.
We should also get a good sense of character. I’d recommend having your character make a decision or two in the first few pages. We’ll get to know them by their choices, by the way they speak and interact with others. If we see them in motion, we’ll get a sense of who they are. Once we understand who they are, we’re more likely to empathize with the them, and follow them along through the course of the novel.
While not every novel needs to have high-stakes conflict immediately, it doesn’t hurt. Steve’s book has a great opening, following his characters as they work to take down a maridrake (like a dragon, but smaller). Immediately, we get a sense of the characters, their unique powers within the world they live, the limits of that power, and the conflict it causes between the protagonists. It’s a great opening, well crafted, and immediately draws the reader in.
But not all first pages need life-or-death type conflicts. Conflict can be as simple as a traffic jam, which will give us an insight into how your character handles minor everyday annoyances. They can be as complex as marital problems. The stakes are still high, and we’ll get a sense of how our character reacts to turmoil.
Try to avoid the cliche “start with a bang.” Unless you’re writing a mystery or horror, I wouldn’t open with a dead body, or a grotesque death scene. They’re done so often, it’s tough to do well. If nothing else, your first pages shouldn’t feel like all the other first pages your readers have experienced. They should be new, unique.
Additionally, your characters should be real. The traffic jam doesn’t work unless we know what our character’s going to be late for, and how it affects them. If his wife is pregnant, and everyone’s parked on the freeway, he’s going to be fuming. This will keep us reading for pages.
You’ll also want to establish a clear voice for your narrator. If you’ve got an engaging voice, readers will stick with you. One way to do this is to include detail. The amount you include, and the style in which you describe the setting, your characters, the conflict, etc., will make your voice clear. Think of it like this: how does your character view the world. What are their likes and dislikes? What emotional resonance do his or her surroundings evoke within them. They’re experiencing the world around them through their senses, and their emotions are tied to it.
If we like how the story is told, we’ll happily go along for the ride. Think of the way people speak. Some are very excited, and speak quickly. Some are more subdued, and speak only when necessary. Others have a very oratorical voice, and make simple things like grocery lists into speeches. These different ways of speaking (which vary from character to character if you’re in first person or third person close point of view).
Lastly, you want to make a few promises to your readers, and you want to answer some of them. For example, early in his novel Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz writes something to the extent of “all this happened before the cow exploded.” This is a promise he’s making to the reader. At some point, he’ll write about when the cow exploded. He didn’t get to it for hundreds of pages, but once he got there, it was awesome. I trusted him to fulfill that promise because he’d raised several questions which he answered early on. You can get a lot of mileage out of raising and answering questions. I like to answer two questions for every one I leave unresolved for any number of chapters. Balancing these questions early on will demonstrate your control of plot and pacing.
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