Monday, October 31, 2011

What Should Be on a First Page

Last week, I mentioned that I sometimes participate in first page critiques. Today, I want to give some of my thoughts on what makes a good first page.

Begin with a Problem

Every good book begins with a problem. It doesn’t have to be in the first sentence, but it should come close. Consider how the ultimate Good Book begins. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void.” That’s our hook. God created, but what he created wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t finished. That’s a problem.

But notice that it isn’t a big problem. It would be for us, but for God it isn’t. There’s nothing particularly emotional about the problem. It doesn’t make you cry. It doesn’t make you angry. It is just a simple problem that needs fixing. As is the case with Moby Dick. You undoubtedly remember that the first sentence is “Call me Ishmael.” There are college professors who can talk about that sentence for hours on end. Personally, I find the second sentence more interesting. “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” The guy was broke, but he wasn’t particularly emotional about it because that was his way of life. Still, it is a problem that needs fixing.

Put the Audience on Hold

It takes time and words to fully introduce the main problem in a story. It is unlikely that you can do much more than hint at the problem on the first page or even in the first chapter. So the goal on the first page should be to give the reader a reason to stick around until we’ve had time to get them fully engaged in the main problem. In Moby Dick, the initial problem is a lack of money, but that turns into a problem of boredom, both of which is reason enough for a man to get into a boat and go to sea. Neither of which are significant enough to justify a novel. But Herman Melville uses that to hold the reader’s attention long enough to introduce the bigger problems of the story, namely, Ahab’s quest for revenge.

Begin with Action

Explanation is boring. In real life, I have very close friends who have siblings that I know nothing about. One of my friends may ask for my help in doing something that will eventually help his siblings. I can give them help without knowing why they need my help. In a book, we don’t have to know a character’s complete life story to understand the character’s actions. Actually, it is completely the opposite. If we know too much of a character’s story, we may question whether that life story would cause him to act the way we say he acts.

What we should do instead is to put the guy into action and let the reader figure out what might cause him to act that way. We can and should give the reader hints along the way but it is much more believable if we don’t psychoanalyze the character too much. Leave that to the college professors. We can say that a character is a certain way, but if his actions don’t match what we say then the reader won’t believe us. On the other hand, if we say nothing about what the character is like and we let his actions reveal who he is, then the reader has nothing to question.

What do you like to see in a first page?

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