Secrets of the first page

Last week Larry Brooks and I critiqued 16 first pages submitted by writers aspiring to publication. This was the Write on the River First Page Critique Session, an exhilarating event we first introduced last fall for our members.

Here are some things I thought I knew about first pages, or learned (after listening to Larry.)

By the way, if you don’t know Larry Brooks as a writer and teacher, kindly introduce yourself to his award-winning blog on writing, appropriately subtitled, Get it written, Get it right, Get it Published. He’s fabulous.

All shapes and types

Story openings for successful novels display a wide variety of approaches. There is no one-size-fits-all ideal opening. But that doesn’t mean anything goes. Larry was more tolerant of slow openings than I was. But we both wanted to see something special on the page.

You have thirty seconds

You have only a few seconds to convince a tired, jaded agent or editor to read on. They will probably give you more than 30 seconds, but in that half-minute window you will make a first impression. Sometimes my first impression last week was just a feint, “Oh, oh.” The sense that I was not in the hands of someone who’s done their homework. If I were an agent, it would color my reading of what came next. Don’t be one of those.

Your first line is important. Don’t squander it on background (unless it is riveting.) Strive for originality. “The first camel died at noon.” Ditto for your first paragraph. It must establish your authority and/or the essential interest of your story, or at least of the scene.

Work hard on the first page

Write it. Rewrite it. Sleep on it. Write it again. Set it aside for a few weeks, write it again. Then set aside for a few months and come back to it. Perhaps replace it with what you’ve learned so far about your novel. This isn’t a rewrite prescription. I’m just saying, work harder on this page than on any other. After ten published novels, I still work hard on my first pages. Not so much for my editor or agent, but for the reader who, on amazon, will take a peek at the book’s opening.

Beware of narrative

You start with narrative at your peril. Most of us aren’t fine enough stylists to knock off a page of memorable prose. When you think you’re writing the finest prose, you may in fact be overwriting. Drop those metaphors and similes. It doesn’t impress the agent who is waiting for you to . . .

Cut to the Chase

Start with a scene. Where something is happening on stage. Put us in the middle of something interesting. The goal of the first page is to get the agent/editor to the second page. So your goal is not really to introduce the novel, but to introduce the scene.

Last week Larry persuaded me that openings could be successful if not a scene. If your voice is strong . . . if you can deliver information that is dramatic . . . or if you can give us something else wonderful!

Too much information

Don’t try to tell us too much. This is a common beginner’s error. Telling details only at this point, please. But at the same time . . .

Don’t skimp on the informaton

Signal early what the genre is. For example, don’t introduce magic for the first time in a fantasy on page 32. Try to get it on the first page or two. Tell where we are, when we are. Let me be grounded right away. A light touch will do; we just don’t want to feel untethered. At the same time, don’t be afraid to introduce a mystery. We don’t need to know everything. Thus: “She still felt the wound.” What wound? We’ll read on to find out.

Skip “getting there”

A beginner’s error is to have someone arriving, and taking their time doing it. As a writer you may have to walk your character up to the front door in order to understand your scene, but spare the reader. (This goes for all those scene openings where we’re Getting There.)

Skip the slow camera pan

Describe in a phrase, one sentence, where we are. You may be seeing a movie in your head, but don’t put it in words. Not on the first page, and especially not in the first paragraph. It’s. Too. Slow.

A likable protagonist

If you begin with the protagonist’s point of view, try subtly to make us like him or her. Not taking him/herself too seriously is one strategy. Their tone of voice will tell us a lot about them. What they do on the first page will be emblematic of their character. Don’t milk strong drama right away. We feel little for this character yet, so don’t start in the middle of a highly emotional scene.

Don’t hit me with a hammer

Despite all I’ve said thus far, don’t begin with too much action. Volcano blowing up? No. Furious chase sequence? Not usually. The latter might go in the first scene, but first page? No.  Yes, movies often begin with action. But the visual medium is magical for what it can deliver with action. A novel? Man, you have to be good to get me interested in Krakatoa on the first page without my feeling manipulated. Besides, who is threatened by this furious action? You haven’t shown me anyone to care about, so unless you’re writing a very commercial romp, ease off, already.

Scene mission

Decide the purpose of this first scene (and all others.) Don’t let the paragraphs skip around on topics. We read a number of pieces where each paragraph went on a different riff. It ends up feeling piece-meal, even hard to follow. Drama leaks away when the scene loses focus. Larry Brooks reminded me how important this is.

Over blocking

Again, inappropriately inspired by film, last week we got a bit of where-this-one-is-hiding and where-this-one-is-sitting and who picked up a coffee cup when and where the crowd is milling and which character is doing what. Scenes with several people are always hard. It’s clear in your head, but it’s not easy to convey. On the first page, keep it to two characters. That’s a rule. (Kidding.)

Original, funny, voice

Some of the best pieces last week got my attention immediately because they were so startlingly original, or they made me laugh (at least to myself) or the voice was compelling (that is, the person in who’s viewpoint we were had jump-off-the-page personality or the author’s voice had mastery.) That latter only happened a couple times. That tells us, I believe, to work hard at a little humor and high-concept originality.

I tell you, you shoulda been there. It’s amazing how much there is to learn about first pages. I, for one, immediately went home and revised the first page of my novel-in-progress. Of course, I had already revised it 6-7 times. But it’s better now.

 

11 Responses

  1. Gale Martin says:

    Really valuable post–great guidelines, if we’re smart enough to follow them. Thank you for sharing your insights from that experience.

  2. Kay says:

    So welcome, Gale. I learned a lot, too.

  3. Don McQuinn says:

    Outstanding insights very neatly strung together as a teaching tool. Must have been a great session.

  4. Kay says:

    Oh, thank you, Don! For some reason, it was just so much fun. The comraderie in the group, for one thing. Last time we did this, when I wasn’t the critiquer, I slipped in one of my own pages. I was nervous! So we all remember what it was to be on That side of things.

  5. […] Secrets of the first page: advice from Kay Kenyon […]

  6. […] Secrets of the first page: advice from Kay Kenyon […]

  7. Chihuahua0 says:

    This is probably a little too late of a comment for you to notice and answer, but I have a question about the “Don’t skimp on the information” part.

    I’m writing a Young Adult Urban Fantasy with a masquerade in place, which means that my narrator is in the dark about the spirits around him until about four chapters in. Since he’s the observant type, there isn’t really any way I can show the fantasy elements before then.

    Is a hint enough, like a glint in the edge of his sight, or maybe somewhat suspicious activity by the co-protagonist. It’s subtle, but a normal reader would notice something’s going on.

  8. Kay says:

    In the world No One knows that magic is in the world? And your protagonist only finds out that magic is leaking through by Ch. 4? If that is the case, I think you have a problem grounding this as fantasy from an early enough point. Possible to create a prologue where magic is dramatically afoot? That could be from another POV, even a pov that is dropped, e.g., someone who dies at the end of the prologue.

    If our world does know magic is here, but your protagonist is the only one who is not yet engaged with magic then you can bring in another POV easily, one that shows magic in 2nd chapter if not before. If you are writing a single POV book, then it becomes a stickier problem. You could have the protagonist create his own prologue by “telling the story” from a future standpoint, telling how much trouble he is in (and show the magic) from just before the climactic scene. Or don’t have him tell, but deliver a future scene “on stage”, and then double back to the beginning, perhaps your masquerade scene.

  9. My writing mentor said that my theatre background got in the way when I set a scene. I imagined a set, lighting, movement, stage dressing, etc., and overwhelmed my reader with so much information she gave up an read another book. My mentor said sketch that first page, but do it vividly so that it is a sensuous surprise, not an overpowering explosion filled with dust and fragments that obscure the story. Your post is most gratifying.

  10. Chihuahua0 says:

    The problem that I don’t want to do a prologue. I considered doing an In Medias Res in my first draft, but I deemed it not gripping enough to worth delaying the real story and the narrator’s appearance. Besides, it’s hard justifying a prologue these days. Many editors frown upon them.

    If I start the story earlier, I’ll lose a lot of context. Starting from Chapter Three would result in confusion or large chunks of exposition. I think establishing the narrator and co-protagonist first is more important than introducing the fantastic elements, since it’s their story. The “Easing into Adventure” route still works, if the characters are interesting enough to hook, which is what I’m working on.

    So, I’ll just stay with my plan and drop hints in the first two chapters, and have the narrator have his first taste of “magic” in Chapter Three, and with the first encounter being the cliff-hanger of that chapter.

  11. Drew Dyer says:

    Thanks for the valuable tips. I found this article on your opening line and first page helpful.

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