When I began marketing my short stories and novels, I was often puzzled and close to affronted by the request to just see the first page of my work. “I only need to see the first page to know whether your book is good or ready to publish,” they would say. I was aghast. How presumptuous! Surely, that wasn’t enough! Surely they were just putting me off and not really interested in the first place! That couldn’t be enough. No, no, no…
I was wrong. It often is.
As a seasoned writer of over a dozen published books and many more short stories and a writing coach and writing teacher, I can tell you that it is generally true. The opening page is usually enough for me to know whether the author is professional, knows their ending, writes a compelling and directed story, and whether the story is ready to be published. Does that sound pompous of me?
If you think so, then read no further. If you’re not sure, read on and I hope to convince you that your opening is more than likely the most important part of your novel or short story. That doesn’t mean that you should inordinately concentrate on polishing it over and over and over at the expense of the rest of your work. That won’t do either; this is because a good opening relies on a good story. Think of it as the introduction to the core issue of your story. Think of it as a long title. If you don’t know where your story is going or what it is about, then your opening will undeniably reflect this.
A good opening resonates with the theme of your story; a great opening creatively illuminates that theme with intrigue.
My March 2011 post entitled “How to Hook Your Reader and Deliver” discusses the three step model of hooking the reader in an opening and how to maintain their interest throughout the length of your story. You can read it there, so I won’t go into it here (e.g., the steps are 1) arouse; 2) delay; and 3) reward). What I wanted to talk about here is more about what goes into a first page of any piece of writing to make it a great opening.
“A novel is like a car,” says Sol Stein (Sol Stein on Writing). “It won’t go anywhere until you start the engine.” Take a look at the opening of your WIP and see if its engine is running.
- Begin with something happening to a major character
- Arouse the Reader’s interest (with intrigue)
- Introduce conflict
- Threaten a likeable character
- Reveal an unusual character or situation
- Begin with a “scene” (action; “showing”) not a “sequel” (reflection; “telling”)
“Start your book with a scene where something is happening, and action takes place; show the drama not the reaction to it,” says Elizabeth Lyon (The Sell Your Novel Toolkit). What she’s actually saying is: start in the middle, not the beginning of your story. Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) tells us that scenes and their corresponding sequels form an integral part of a story’s larger plot movement. And to apply sound story building, this dynamic relationship must be first understood. You “show” in a scene, which plays out the goal, conflict and inevitable disaster of the protagonist; sequels, in turn, often “tell” of the protagonist’s reaction, dilemma, and decision (which propels the character on to the next scene). Yet, time and again, I read openings that are actually sequels (leading to action; but not action themselves). They may languish and even entertain with clever intellectual description, but they do not scintillate with intrigue or direction. It is a little like reading the review of a movie before watching it for yourself (one of the reasons why I never consult a review before I watch a movie—because I want to live it with the characters first hand, or at least give myself the chance to).
Another way of thinking of the scene / sequel dynamic is to see them as cause and effect or action and reaction. An opening in action is more likely to grip the reader in its visceral intrigue and promise of the story’s direction and will than an intellectualization of an event that happened off stage.
The table below provides a few suggestions on what to include and what not to in an opening page.
Good Openings Don’t…
|Contain lots of back story||Integrate back story in with scene as needed in the appropriate place|
|Contain lots of exposition, setting, character description, etc.||Reveal place and character detail with action as needed|
|Start with reflection, explanations – particularly about something “off-stage” in time or space||Start with action / conflict / turmoil / discovery – start mid-stride with intrigue, then reveal after…|
|Start with a dream or waking up or other ordinary / mundane scenario heading towards the action or conflict||Start with something HAPPENING … Start with a SCENE in “the NOW” as it is happening|
My October 2011 post entitled “Moving from Prosaic to Spectacular” discusses some ways to manage the fine balance of exposition, telling and showing and other challenges in grabbing and keeping the reader’s interest; all very pertinent to your opening page.