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During the final rewrite phase of my novel, Misfit McCabe, leading up to publication, I worked with a class of young readers to preview the manuscript and provide feedback. This is the fifteenth in a series of articles about fiction writing aimed at young writers. This article focuses on what needs to be covered within the course of that important first page.
Your goal when writing a story is to get the reader to turn the first page. If they don't want to turn that first page, then they won't read your story. You have approximately three paragraphs to get the reader involved and to make them want to turn that page. So, how do you get your reader hooked in those first few paragraphs?
There are four fundamentals which can help to increase interest in the opening paragraphs: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility.
If you think about when you are reading a story, one of the first things you want is to be introduced to the protagonist so that you can start to get to know them. We don't have to know everything about them in the first couple of sentences, but we want to get a flavor for who they are. Will they be someone that we like? Can we identify with what the character is feeling, thinking or doing?
How do we best introduce our character? Readers always like to know what a character looks like so that they can form a mental image. Do we need to fully describe the character's looks on the first page or is it more important to start establishing their personality? If there is something important about the way a character looks that will enhance the first few paragraphs by including the description, then the answer is yes, you do need to describe that part of the character right away. Otherwise, it is probably better to build the description of your character a little at a time rather than all at once. A story which starts with a detailed description of a character drags, and your mind wants to race ahead to find out why we care about the character.
Misfit McCabe opens with a scene between two characters, Katie and Timmy. From the opening, there is a sense that Katie is the leader between the two who is always coming up with ideas that get the two of them into trouble. Timmy is trying to impress Katie by coming up with a twist to the original idea, to make it seem even more wicked. Plus, he is trying to show her that he can be as "bad" as she is. There is also the impression that as both Katie and Timmy are changing as they age, Katie is unsure about the person her life-long friend is turning into.
Without conflict you don't have a story, so you want to make sure that you at least hint at some conflict during the first page. This does not mean that you need to start the opening sentence with your character running for his life or hanging from a cliff. You will not be able to fully develop the conflict in the first few paragraphs either, so how do you handle conflict in the opening? Some conflicts may be overtly dramatic, such as opening with a character being stabbed through the heart, but others will be more subtle and can take place within the thoughts of a character.
"You know I'll swear it was all my idea."
"But, Katie, it was all your idea." Tim reached behind his back and pulled out a flask. "Except for this."
"Are you getting sly on me, Timmy Lawrence?" He never tried anything without checking it out with me first. " What's in it?" Other than something to get us both into trouble.
He shrugged one shoulder and leaned back against the side of the shed. " Oh, nothing much. Just a little rum to go with the cokes I brought." He cracked open a can and handed it to me. "Drink some out, so I can spice it up for you."
Swallowing as much as I could in a mouthful, I passed the can back to him. " What made you think of this?" A new Timmy was emerging, and I didn't know exactly how to handle him.
He grinned as he concentrated on pouring the rum into the coke. "I just figured that if we were going to start smoking, we might as well mark the occasion with a drink of celebration." He doctored his drink and set the flask on the ground. "Anyway, you're always saying that I never come up with my own ideas. So I did."
"I'll say. And what an idea." I could see the faint flush of pride on Tim's cheeks.
In the above opening passage of Misfit McCabe, the conflict of Katie rebelling against her everything she has been taught is intimated by her experiment with smoking and drinking. By doing something she knows is wrong, she is trying to break away from the mold of who she is expected to be in order to find out who she really is. There is also the minor conflict hinted at surrounding her changing relationship with Timmy and that she is not sure how she feels about things changing. So, on the one hand, she wants things to change, and on the other she wants them to stay the same.
The more specific the detail of the story, the more vividly you paint the picture for your reader. The easier it is for the reader to visualize, or empathize with the character, the more involved they become with the story. Use specifics rather than generalities in the characters speech, description of the setting, and the character's thoughts. Let's take a look at the difference using a specific term versus a more generic term makes in the way something reads.
Version 1 "But, Katie, it was all your idea." Tim reached behind his back and pulled out a bottle. "Except for this."
Version 2 "But, Katie, it was all your idea." Tim reached behind his back and pulled out a flask. "Except for this."
The word bottle and the word flask both mean a container which holds liquids, but the word bottle is much more generic than the word flask. A bottle could contain milk, water, or even Kool-aid. A flask contains alcohol. By using the word flask, we leave the reader no question as to what Timmy has brought with him. When polishing your opening page, examine each word to ensure that you have used the best, most specific word you can to draw the reader into your story.
How do you make sure that your first page is credible? That may be the most difficult question to answer because what it means is that you have started your story well enough to allow the reader to trust you as an author. So how do you get the reader to trust that you can tell the story well?
- Make sure what you have written is tight. Don't use ten words, when just a few will do. As authors, we tend to use more words when we are struggling to bring a scene to life than when we know where we are going with the story. When you are reviewing what you have written, go over each sentence and see whether or not you could "tighten" it up by reducing some of the words, or changing several general words to the use of one specific word.
- Use the word that comes closest to the image of what you are trying to convey. This goes back to specificity. Remember the example of the use of the word flask versus the word bottle and which one best conveyed the image to the reader.
- Your reader should not have to try and decipher what you mean. Work on making your meaning clear. Just because the meaning is clear to you doesn't mean that it is clear to your potential reader. The best way to find out whether you have been successful is to have different people read the passage and if they have questions about what is going on, then you need to make some changes to clarify the meaning. Sometimes we really like the words that we have written and think that it says exactly what we want it to. The question that you then have to ask yourself is whether you are writing for your eyes only, or do you want more people to enjoy your story. If your answer is that you want more people to enjoy your story, then swallow your pride and rewrite the confusing passage so that it is understandable to the reader.
- Remember, your words should reveal your story and bring it to life. If you are trying to show the reader how clever you are as a writer, chances are the reader will sense that you are trying to show off and will then have a negative attitude about reading your work.