Firsts in First Pages
The continuing class I taught at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers’ Conference in the beginning of May focused on beginnings. If you’ve been following my blog long, you’ll already know how much I value strong openings, not only as a writer, but as an editor. In fact, I spent several weeks chronicling the critical paper I wrote as part of my Masters work at Antioch University of Los Angeles. If you missed it, you can find it in my archives here.
When writing first pages, it will serve you well to remember that your openings (especially the first page) serves one primary purpose, and that is to establish your authorial authority. Essentially, you’re announcing your right to write a novel. Anyone picking up a novel must weigh the time it will take them to finish the book. If, within the first few pages, you do not make them believe that you’re a gifted writer, they will not invest in the novel, neither with their time or their finances. Therefore, it is critical to establish on the first page that you know what you’re doing, and that their time (and money) will be well spent on the culmination of your efforts in penning this novel.
But how can one establish credibility as a writer to a wide audience? What do readers want? There are five main things that all readers look for, whether they can adequately express it or not. They are voice, conflict, character, context, and clarity.
Voice, in and of itself, is a pretty deep topic worthy of it’s own post (note to self—after posting notes from all BRMCWC classes, do a post on voice). For now, if you’re curious, check out my earlier post on establishing voice in the first line. It’s far from comprehensive, but it will suffice for our purposes for now.
I’ve done several blogs on conflict, character, context, and clarity. But the true magic of the first page is that you have several paragraphs with which to establish all of these. The challenge of the first page is doing so in only a few paragraphs. In order to do this well, you must learn to combine these elements. Your characters should already be in the midst of a conflict on the first page. Additionally, you should write about this conflict, and the character entangled within it, with such clarity of detail that the reader believes your prose will be easily understood throughout the course of the novel. Lastly, you need to provide context so that the reader trusts that you will resolve the conflicts running through the novel, and that you will describe the importance of such conflicts.
Here’s a quick hit list of things to keep in mind while establishing these:
VOICE: Your narrator should have a compelling voice, regardless of the point of view you’ve chosen to use. Readers want to experience the story, and they want to hear someone interesting tell them the story that they’re experiencing. Try reading your first page aloud. Is there rhythm? Is there a certain cadence to your words? Can you conceptualize the person who would speak this way?
CHARACTER: After you complete your novel, you’ll have a better understanding of who your character is. Upon revision, find ways to highlight certain aspects of your character. What is it that makes them unique? Their way of speaking? A physical defect? An illness? A strange compulsion? What defines your character? When you know this, make sure you make at least an allusion to this defining characteristic somewhere in the first page.
CONFLICT: While you do not need to establish the central conflict on page one, you should at least show the ripples of it. These ripples should get larger and larger until our characters find themselves in the epicenter. Ask yourself, what is the central conflict? How does it affect your primary character? We don’t need to see the whole thing, but we do need to see its affect on our protagonist.
CONTEXT: This is the thing most beginning writers overlook, but it is one of the most important. Context is the “where when why and how.” In simpler terms, it’s the setting. While you don’t need to clearly show the entire city or world your characters live in, you should at least show the bookstore they own, or their home, or the coffee shop they frequent. We don’t need seven pages of description, just a sentence here or there.
CLARITY: I feel a lot like a one-trick pony when it comes to clarity. I say this so often, which you can attest to if you follow my blog. So rather than going back in to it, I’ll simply reference my post Mystery v. Murky again. Long story short—give us enough detail to ground us in what’s going on. Do not mistake the lack of detail for mystery. Clarity, through the use of detailed description, more than anything else establishes your authorial authority.
Think of the first page as a type of contract between you and the reader. You’re making promises on that page, and if you don’t understand that, your first page will end up lacking. You must not only make the promise, but make the reader trust that you will fulfill them.