Let’s face it, talking about writing the first pages of a novel is stressful. It can strike terror into the heart of even the most seasoned writer, because as writers we all know how scarily narrow the window is, and yet we must reach through it, grab the reader, and yank them into the story.
The problem is that writers often think that what pulls readers in is that perfectly written first sentence. The one that proves you’re a wordsmith. Because, of course, being a “wordsmith” is what defines you as a writer.
No, no, no.
What makes you a writer is the focused ability to relentlessly dig deep into your protagonist’s past, unearthing the specific material from which the story springs organically. Because it’s the story itself that makes the words potent. Not the other way around.
In other, um, words, it’s not the words. It’s what the words are saying that yanks the reader in. And what they’re saying comes from the story, NOT from writing technique, reader manipulation, writing rules or, heaven forbid, “love of language,” whatever that means.
The focus on wordsmithing is heartbreaking. It not only keeps writers from getting out of the starting gate, it keeps them from getting into it. Because if you can’t write a perfect opening sentence, what’s the point of writing a second sentence?
Here’s a welcome newsflash: The brain is far less picky about beautiful writing than we’ve been lead to believe. And that’s as true in literary fiction as in commercial novels.
So what does yank the reader in, what hijacks the reader’s brain on that first page, catapulting readers head first into the world of the story?
There are four things we’re wired to look for on the first pages that, in concert, create the world of the story, make the reader to care, and so — biologically — have to know what happens next. Because story isn’t for entertainment. Story is entertaining so we’ll pay attention to it, because we just might learn something we need to know about what makes people tick, the better to navigate this mortal coil without getting clobbered too often.
Here are the four elements that — even when the writing IS lovely, lyrical and beautiful — are what your reader is actually responding to.
What’s the Big Picture?
As readers, we know that a story is about how someone solves an unexpected problem they cannot avoid. That’s WHY we’re drawn to story – we want to see how someone will deal with the kind of problems we so studiously avoid in real life. We crave the “uh oh” that yanks us in. Not a mere momentary “uh oh,” but one that has legs – one that kicks off an escalating row of dominoes. Which is why we need a glimpse of those dominoes, of where this is going.
As one editor brilliantly said recently, “The first paragraph is a promise you make to your reader.” In other words: What is the overarching plot problem?
Here’s what that opening paragraph (sometimes only a sentence!) should convey:
- What’s the Context? What arena will this play out in? Think of it as our yardstick, our score card. If we don’t know what the specific ongoing problem is, we can’t make sense of what’s happening. We’re wired to look for causality in everything. If this, then that – it’s how we humans turn the chaos around us into a world we can kind of, sort of, navigate. Plus, without a clear context, we can’t anticipate what might happen next, giving us nothing to be curious about, and so no reason to read forward.
- Where’s the Conflict? Where is the specific conflict? Why is the problem hitting critical mass right now? We want to feel that jolt. That’s what gets our attention (not beautiful writing). Surprise rivets us. Don’t mute it, don’t make it “tepid,” don’t make the reader guess what you really mean – instead, let there be blood. Writers shy away from this, thinking it’s “over the top.” Here’s the truth: Over the top is what we come for. Whether in events, or in the depth of emotion seemingly mundane events can trigger.
- What’s the Scope? Where will this end? What is it building toward? What is the journey you want me to sign on for? The biggest problem writers have is that they hold back the specifics for a reveal later, thinking that will lure the reader in. Instead it locks the reader out. First, it implies we already care enough to want to know what’s going on. We don’t. Letting us know that Something Big is happening, but keeping it vague, implied, unclear, doesn’t make us curious. It makes us annoyed. Like the writer is toying with us. We can’t imagine what might happen next because we have no idea what is happening now. Or why. So why would we care?
The irony is that writers withhold the very information that would lure us in. Consider these very specific, utterly revealing opening lines:
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. From Celeste Ng’s debut literary novel Everything I Never Told You
It was a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost didn’t notice I was being blackmailed. From Becky Albertalli’s YA Simon vs. The Homosapien’s Agenda
Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent toward murder with a bus ride. From Elizabeth George’s thriller What Came Before He Shot Her
Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat. From Caroline Leavitt’s literary novel Cruel Beautiful World
The Takeaway: GIVE IT ALL AWAY! TELL US WHERE WE’RE GOING. TELL US WHAT’S HAPPENING. BE SPECIFIC. BE CLEAR. BE CONCRETE. And yes, I’m yelling, not at you but at that pesky voice in your head that often tells you to hold back, that says somehow holding back makes you a more sophisticated writer. Here’s the truth: giving it all away is not “unliterary.” It’s not clunky. It’s not over the top. It’s not too obvious. It’s the key to grabbing the reader.
The job of the first paragraph is to hook the reader by stoking that delicious sense of urgency. Now you have to follow through in order to hold them.
What Is Happening?
Once we know what the story problem is, we expect that first domino to topple, starting a chain reaction that we’ll ride all the way to the end. So, let the problem begin.
I’m betting that’s a piece of advice you’ve already heard. Leap into action! The problem is it implies that objectively “dramatic” action in and of itself is engaging. Couldn’t be less true.
I remember years ago reading the first pages of a manuscript – it was a historical novel set in the wild west. It opened with a woman trapped alone in a runaway stagecoach. The driver had been shot, the horses were running wildly, madly, the woman was screaming, and did I mention they were galloping along a sheer cliff edge, so at any minute the stagecoach could plunge to the valley below and . . . who cares?
The irony was that the more “specific” sensory details she threw in, the more beautiful her metaphors, the more intricate her rendition of the horror on that poor trapped woman’s face, the more it alienated the reader. I mean, with all those details it started to feel like there was going to be a test or something. Not that the reader wants that woman to die, but sheesh, you don’t actually know her, so your mind wanders toward things you do care about like, hmmm, I wonder if that brownie is still in the fridge, maybe I should just go check?
And here’s the thing, without the aforementioned context and scope, the above is dull, boring, and . . . a brownie did you say?
The Takeaway: Yes, immediate action is required. Something must be happening, absolutely. But action alone – regardless how objectively dramatic – won’t pull the reader in. It needs to be the action that kicks off the overarching problem that we’ve already been made aware of, and as important, it needs to be someone’s problem – which brings us to the next thing the reader is searching for on the first pages . . .
Who Is the Protagonist?
After all, the protagonist is the reader’s avatar in the story, the person in whose head the reader will reside. This is the person who the reader will be rooting for, whose point of view everything will be filtered through.
Make no mistake: everything that happens in the plot gets its meaning, and therefore its emotional weight, based on one thing and one thing only: how it affects the protagonist. Does it get her closer to her goal or further from it? Does it help her or hurt her? And — this is where your story really lies — what specific, subjective meaning is she reading into what’s happening, given her agenda?
The Takeaway: Without a protagonist, nothing means anything, and even the most “objectively” dramatic action falls flat because there’s no story, just a plot — otherwise known as “a bunch of things that happen.” Which is why as readers we want to meet the protagonist on the very first page.
Now comes the fourth element, the one that brings these three elements together and binds them in meaning:
Why Does What’s Happening Matter to the Protagonist?
Right now you could be thinking, Hey, that woman trapped in the stagecoach—I sure know why plunging over the cliff mattered to her. It’s because she doesn’t want to die. Duh! And that’s precisely why that isn’t what the reader is after. Because the reader already knows that no one wants to plunge to their death. So there’s nothing we can learn from that. It’s generic. Ho hum.
Rather, the answer to this question stems from something that writers often don’t focus on, let alone develop: What is the protagonist’s overarching agenda, the one she steps onto the page with?
All protagonists enter the story with an agenda — whether they’re conscious of it or not — and the plot is going to mess with it. The reason what’s happening on page one matters to the protagonist is because it’s going to throw a monkey wrench into their well-laid plan.
Want an example of an overarching agenda? Let’s circle back to the first two lines of Simon vs. the Homosapien’s Agenda: “It was a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost didn’t realize I was being blackmailed.”
That starts with a bang. We have a notion of where it’s going, the scope and the conflict. But the real question is how does being blackmailed affect the agenda Simon had before his dorky classmate Martin threatened him?
Here’s the story: Simon is gay, he’s in the closet, not because he’d get clobbered by anyone if he came out, he just doesn’t want things to change right now, because change is uncomfortable, even good change, and as a sixteen year old he already has enough inherent change in his life, thank you very much. But . . . he’s also fallen in love with a mystery boy, who he met on the school’s online message board. Neither knows the other’s real name. The boy, also in the closet, is Blue; Simon is Jacque. This is the first person who Simon has been able to open up to, and it feels amazing. His goal is to find out who Blue is and hopefully fall into his arms. THAT is the agenda Simon stepped onto page one with, already fully formed.
Martin accidentally discovers Simon’s email chain with Blue and decides to use it to his advantage. Martin wants Simon to help him get the attention of Abby, a girl Simon is friends with. Put in a good word, maybe invite him along when they get together. No big deal.
So why does the overarching plot problem – that Simon is being blackmailed – matter? Because it threatens to derail Simon’s agenda. If word gets out, it might not only spook Blue, but hurt him. And that’s the last thing Simon wants to do. So why not help Martin? Abby will never have to find out . . . right?
And there you have it, hooked and held!
The Takeaway: What’s the real secret of nailing the first pages? It’s this: All stories begin in medias res — Latin for in the middle of the thing, the “thing” being the story itself. So page one of your novel is actually the first page of the second half of the story. Because you can’t “give it all away,” unless you have “it” in the first place.
Which brings us back to where we started. Writing isn’t about starting on page one and wordsmithing forward. Being a novelist is about digging deep long before you get to page one and creating the first half of the protagonist’s story. Only then will you have a story to tell.
By Lisa Cron
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