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The First Page

It was a dark and stormy night, when a couple of guys who were up to no good started making trouble in my neighborhood. True story.

Nearly everything I said about introductions in Tuesday’s post, Negotiating a Connection, applies to Creative Writers just as much as it does to the Business Writers. The big exception is attitude. When it comes to a technical document, having to write the introduction is a nightmare. When it comes to stories or novels, often the beginning is the funnest part. That’s partly because Creative Writing is more fun than Business Writing, but it’s mostly because we don’t care as much. That’s not really a good thing.

Most of the problems we run into with creative introductions are problems of indulgence — we spend our precious first page chasing some cool big payoff instead of doing the crucial, unexciting work of negotiating a connection with readers and bringing them up to speed so they can enjoy the rest of the story.

That might sound like I’m saying your first page shouldn’t be cool or exciting. I’m not saying that. If your first page isn’t cool and exciting, nobody’s buying your story. Nobody’s going to get to page two. The important part is to make sure it’s the story that’s cool and exciting, though, and not some gimmick intro designed just to draw the reader in. I’ll talk a little bit about the worst common pitfalls, and then say a word or two about how to do it right.

Chasing Clever Pick-up Lines

Okay, sure, sometimes pick-up lines work wonders, but for the most part you’re better off with a clear, honest introduction that reveals exactly who you are and hints at what you have to offer.

One of the biggest problems for new writers trying to craft engaging intros is the temptation to chase after the clever pick-up lines, though. We all wish we could be the one who came up with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Most of us would settle for, “It was a dark and stormy night.” No matter what, there’s this impression that the first line of the book has to sell the book, and I know writers who have spent as long obsessing over their opening lines as they spent writing the novels!

As a general rule, if someone gets to the first page of your story, you’ve probably got more than a line to snag them. They know what you’re trying to do, and they’re still listening. And, sure, you can certainly drive them off with a bad opening line, but as long as it’s not offensive (umm…literarily), you’ve probably got their attention for at least a paragraph. If you can hook them enough to keep them reading beyond that, you’ve probably got them for a whole page. By the end of the page (in my opinion) you should really be done with introductions and into your story.

Now, by all means, if you come across a fantastic opening line that fits with your story, you should use it. That’s gold, baby! It’s not necessary, though. Leave the brilliant tagline to your publisher’s marketing department, and focus your efforts on creating a smooth and accessible introduction to your work.

Worldbuilding Prologues

Worse than the pick-up line (and far more common) is the tedious introduction, complete with references. I said before that you should be done introducing and started telling by the end of the first page, but it’s not at all uncommon for writers to put that off for tens or even hundreds of pages! You might have noticed I left the “new” off there, too. Robert Jordan used the hundred-page prologues to great effect, but even his got tedious. I was being unnecessarily snarky when I said it, but I accused The Stand of being a hundred-page story with a seven-hundred-page prologue.

Ultimately, though, you’ve got a story to tell. That’s why you’re writing, and that’s why your reader is reading. It’s your job to tell the story, and every moment you spend not doing that, you’re letting the reader down.

That’s where we get back to the “necessary evil” introductions I talked about on Tuesday. The introduction you’re supposed to be doing on the first page isn’t necessarily the same as the one you want to do. The introduction you’re supposed to be doing is the one that brings the reader up to speed, as quickly as possible, and then gets out of the way so the story can start.

Too often, we want to explain. Not just bring the reader up to speed, but explain everything they’ve missed. After all, there was nuance there! There was subtlety! The fantasy genre is the worst for this, but every genre has its culprits. You feel like you have to explain the whole world so your reader can properly appreciate what happens to the character at the beginning of the story.

For many readers, though — especially for fantasy readers — figuring out the world is half of the fun of reading your story. It’s a puzzle. It’s a survival game. The reader opens up a new book excited to explore a mysterious world and discover the depths of the writer’s imagination. They like picking up on clues, teasing out inferences from casual asides. If they wanted a complete and detailed run-down of your cosmology, they’d be reading the Wikipedia page. When they open your book, they want to directly experience the story.

That doesn’t mean your thousand-year history is wasted, or the artificial language you made up for a now-extinct race of Elvish philosopher-kings. Weave it into your narrative, drop hints and passing references, and find opportunities to make it part of your story. Work it in on page five and page seventeen and as a twist ending on three-forty-three. On page one, though, your only job is to get the reader ready, and then get the story started.

Finding the Right Spot

So…what should you do in an introduction?  I’ve already told you not to be clever and exciting, and not to be boring and detailed. What does that leave?

It’s a long answer. I’m not starting a series here (Hah! For once!), but I am promising more information in the future. Beginnings are big, and I’m sure much more ink will be spilled on this topic. For now, I’ll make it simple: character and story.

Before you can write a good introduction, you need to figure out the answers to a few questions:

  • What is your story?
  • What actually happens to your character(s)?
  • Who is your main (or first) point-of-view character?
  • How is that character different from your reader?
  • What does your reader expect from this genre?
  • What will your reader assume about your character?
  • How does your story fit into those expectations? How does it differ?

Once you can answer those questions, you know where to start. Whatever happens to your character(s) needs to start happening at the top of page two, so you’ve got about three hundred words available to bridge the distance between your first point-of-view character, and your reader. Don’t try to find a cheesy pick-up line, don’t start quoting the Encyclopedia MiddleEarthica, just make some quick introductions, and get these two people talking.

After that, everything the reader needs to know can come from the character. After that, you’re telling a story.

Photo credit picsbycam.

2 Responses to “The First Page”

  1. Courtney says:

    Ahh, the infamous prologue of the fantasy genre. ;o) As you well know, I’ve been guilty of this, myself. But the writer’s drive to give the reader every backstory detail often carries past the beginning of the story and into the beginning of each chapter.

    Exhibit A: In my fantasy novel, TRIAD, I originally began Chapter Two with a listing of my main character’s genealogy.


    Why did I do it? Because I have a personal love for genealogy, and I had made up this fascinating family line going back umpteen generations, spanning 1500 years, with terribly clever names and a hint of story to go with each one. Who wouldn’t want to read that?!?

    Fortunately, Elizabeth Engstrom, my writing mentor at the time, kindly yet bluntly pointed out to me that this was boring.

    Re-write, re-write, re-write. And there was much re-joicing. ;o)

  2. Aaron Pogue says:

    You crack me up.

    Given what you did with family histories in the novel, maybe the genealogy wouldn’t have been too terrible. Maybe?

    No. You’re right. It had to be out. But I remember the family histories in the novel. You developed a compelling, believable foreign culture and one of the masterstrokes was the emphasis on family history. I know you probably stripped out pages and pages (and days and days worth of work), but the slivers that remained added an amazing depth to your finished work.

    You know all that. It’s worth saying again, though, for all the writers kicking themselves for writing stupid intros and wasteful filler and all the junk that gets jotted down just as fuel for the editing process. It’s all valuable. It’s why we have rough drafts in the first place (and why they’re so important).

    It’s also why you can’t live in fear of the blank page. Put something on it. Even if it’s garbage, even if it’s BORING, even if it gets cut two months from now, it’s going to make your book better. In the first draft stage, every word you put down on paper makes your book better.