first page

Longtime readers know I'm all about the first page. It's from editing and reading slush. Sorry. When I'm facing down fifty stories you have to capture my complete attention in the first 250 words or I'm all:


I'm told that's how it is in novels, as well. People want to know what the hell the story is about from the start. The first page is a contract with the reader. Here's my story. See what it's about? Cool character, huh? Keep reading, and I'll keep you entertained. That's the amount of your contract.

But really, all my own story bias aside, what belongs on a first page?

Okay, here's a couple of things not to do:

Fuck Prologues. 99.9% of prologues add zero to the story. They're authorial indulgence, most of 'em.

No vignettes or false starts. Another authorial indulgence. This is your first page, damn it. Launch your story, thrust your character into their dilemma, and grab the reader by the short hairs. Vignettes are like taunting the reader with "here's this cool thing that was so cool I couldn't cut it even though it doesn't fit anywhere else in my cool book. OMG!!! I love my character and story!!! Aren't they cool????"  It's self-indulgent bull-crap. Stop it! Besides, you can stick your false start on your outtakes page of your website after the book is made into a movie.

Don't have your character wake up or answer the phone. Just don't.

Now a few things TO DO. Probably not in any particular order. It's Saturday. I'm not feeling organized.

Set The Scene. Rules of journalism: who, where, what, why? How? can wait... in fact I think that's an awesome question for the first pages of a story or book to ask, but never answer.

Narrative Voice. Which should probably be a a subset of either introducing the character or setting the scene. First person? Third? Is there snark? Humor? Serious bloody shit going down all the time? Set the tone, man.

Start At The Start Of The Story. Um, yeah, well, duh. Or, not so duh, apparently. Where does your story start? Does it start with the protagonist waking up and having coffee? Maybe, if an intruder who is going to torture him wakes them by pouring hot coffee over him. Other than that, get me to where the damn story starts, where something happens that has something, for the love of God, to do with the STORY.

Introduce The Main Character, usually the protagonist. Gimme someone to latch onto. I can't get attached to a description of a place, or some old king who never reappears (don't laugh, just read a book like that) or a cat or fucking fog or something.

Show What Your Story Is About. I think the primary reason some first pages suck so badly is because when writers first write them, they don't know what the story is about, and yet people get so attached to their first pages. Sigh. (Yeah, I'm talking to you, pantzers) Go back, toss that fucker and write a new one that fits the story you wrote. Don't keep the one that fits the story you thought you were writing at the start of November (yeah, I'm talking to you, NaNoWriMo-ers). Sometimes it helps to think of the first page or really, the first scene, as a mini story of your whole book.

Action. For crissake have your character do something. A common problem is to have something just happen to the character. No. Get them in the driver's seat. Hotwire the car if you have to. It's part of that whole contract thing I mentioned. Nobody likes a doormat, especially readers.

Conflict.  For crissake, give them some conflict. Conflict on every page. Especially the first page. There's a rule for you to stick in your back pocket.

In Medias Res. Right now this is en vogue. I list it here with a caveat:  they should be in media res of their regular life right before the turning point. They hunt monsters? Let them discover The Monster the book will revolve around. And don't don't DON'T do a flashback to achieve in medias res. You've just broken the fucking contract, bucko. You'll be hearing from my attorneys.

First Lines.  Obviously there must be a first line. However, I think the importance laid down on first lines is utter bullshit, actually. I like my first lines to shove me into the head of the protagonist. That's about it.  A little narrative voice is nice in a first line, too. Other than that, don't sweat the damn thing. Personal preference, maybe, and some stories start with the antagonist, but I liken those starts to Prologues. (See Fuck Prologues.)

And yeah. That's all I can think of. It's probably enough for now anyway.


Christine Hardy said...

I'm learning this depends on genre. Horror, Sci Fi, Fantasy... yes to all that. But there are an awful lot of people who love a rich narrative voice or a description of a cat sleeping in the sun on the MC's porch.

I'm just sayin'.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I don't know any of those people. :)

Chris Devlin said...

I love how you just give it to us straight. I'm kind of sick of being all polite and G-rated when giving this feedback. GREAT feedback!


sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I haz a potty mouth. :/

Karen Duvall said...

This is some really good advice, Bets! And I think a few things are a matter of taste, like for your first commenter, Christine. And for my agent, too, for that matter. She doesn't like a lot of action at the beginning of a story, yet she does like to be grounded in the scene. But that's just one agent's preference. They're all different.

I'll add emotions to your list. Writers often forget to include their characters' emotional response to events happening around them. I think that's the main reason my agent doesn't care for a lot of action at the beginning of a book. If she can't identify what the character is feeling, she won't read beyond the first page.

Great blog!

Christine Hardy said...

Good point, Karen. I spent a lot of time trying not to be too emotional because I thought it sounded corny, and trying to put more action in. Then I realized I had scenes with action just for action's sake and that my characters were kind of wooden. I'm teaching myself to go back and put those reactions in.

It's a fine line to walk between melodrama and authenticity.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Very good point about emotions! I think Christine and Inare learning that together.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

And you know I hesitated about putting action in the list. But I don't mean a balls out fight or car chase, just get your character active and doing something.

Karen Duvall said...

Absolutely, Bets. No navel-gazing allowed, lol. The waking up, petting the cat on the porch swing, and having coffee scenes are like that. Those are the kinds of openings that I think of as the writer clearing his or her throat. Haha!

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Well, and to be clear, I think it's totally FINE to WRITE those scenes. It's not okay to try to publish those scenes. All writers need a chance to be self-indulgent.

Christine Hardy said...

See, now I feel all geared up to write a sleeping-cat-and-drinking-coffee-on-the-porch scene. It would, actually, fit quite well with one of my characters.

But it has to show something about what's happening or about to happen. The calm before the storm. Or being interrupted with a message. Or being interrupted by a really hot guy who asks to borrow her shower. That kind of thing.

As Betsy said, there has to be some action.

I appreciate what you said, Bets, about in media res in the character's normal world. I've really struggled with my novel in terms of where to start it. I had the book starting with the inciting incident that pushes the hero into taking action, but everyone was so confused I had to backtrack a bit and set things up first.

N. R. Williams said...

Hi Betsy
You all have a little chat going on. LOL

I can't even tell you how many times I rewrote my first page and still do on the ms. I'm currently working on. Action, suspense, emotion and strong characterization. For those wondering how you achieve all or any of this in a fist page, first chapter, it is with careful attention to your sentences.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

And showing. Lots of showing. Showing takes fewer words than telling.

lesleylsmith said...

Let's say a novel opened up with a man standing between his car and an old barn. Let's say he's standing quite a while thinking (aka giving the reader backstory) and yawning. Let's say he finally enters the barn and finds a hand sticking out of the soil (Yeah!). He digs up the arm to identify the victim and then makes 2 phone calls. Then, he waits around for hours...

Would you say this author is doing the best job he/she can do? IS this the start of the story?

Also, from this opening, what is this story about?

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Haha, touche! But that's why I put it through the group!

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

But in my own defense, over 20 people have read/heard that opening and loved it. That's why I haven't mucked with it much. We shall see... I'm sure it will be rewritten when I finish revising the book.

Anonymous said...

After finishing (what turned out to be) my first novel, it took me FOUR YEARS to figure out where to start it.

Of course, along the way I wrote about a million words, providing the raw material for novels 2-4. A lot of that had to be cut out too.

But it wasn't wasted effort. Despite the tendency of writers to look back on all their own past work as crap, I can confidently say that in 2011 I finally reached the point of "diminishing returns" on further tinkering.

I've been extremely, extremely lucky with finding a bunch of kick-ass beta readers. And as short as I am on time now, I have to consider myself lucky that I was able to put in as much time as I did before the birth of my kids

Anonymous said...

How come my LJ photo never appears when I do this??

lesleylsmith said...

Are these 20 people that love you and your work, or 20 objective people? :)
When you already have a defense I'm sensing a 'darling.'
Not that I'm saying it's bad.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Actually I rethought your idea on the phone calls and came up with something better! So it helped a lot. They were writers, mostly, actually. Those are the only people who read my stuff in early stages.

But no, I'm not married to it. We'll see...

Christine Hardy said...

All I can say is, I'm dying of curiosity to read this disputed first page now.