FIVE FUNCTIONS OF YOUR FIRST FEW PAGES!

The first few pages of your book, or the first few paragraphs of a short story, have a heavy load to bear. These are the pages that make or break your chances with publishers or competition judges and, most importantly, readers. It’s best not to think about it too much when you’re doing a first draft. Just start writing and then, later, once you’ve written all the way to the end, you can figure out the best place to start and whether it’s working well.

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Most importantly your first pages must:

1.HOOK THE READER! Something in those first pages must intrigue the reader and compel them to continue turning the page. But how? SET UP A QUESTION. You can engage a reader with your beautiful prose but really, most of us just want to get our teeth into a riveting story that draws us in. By asking questions in that first page or so, you compel the reader to continue in search of an answer. This is your hook. The question you ask should relate to your story as a whole, not just “Which dress will Sophie wear to the dance?” but “Will Sophie ever escape her dreary small town?” 

Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, sets up the question that drives the novel in the opening line. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” And there you have it – who will this rich man choose to marry of the five sisters? 

In my novel set in Cambodia, “Child of Fortune”, I set up my question in the first page:

“I need to let you know what really happened, who I really am. Who you are. I’m afraid to tell you, because when I’m done you won’t be the same anymore.”

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What happened in Cambodia that changed this woman? And how will it change us too?

What is the central question of your story? Find a way to introduce it early.

2. GROUND THE READER. When we begin a new book, we enter a new world. This world may be as familiar as a suburban street, or it may be another planet 400 years ago. Make sure you include some setting details in that first page, so we know where and when we are in time and place. This is especially important for Sci-fi and Speculative fiction. Make sure the reader isn’t frantically looking for clues to figure out what’s going on. Just tell us!

3. ESTABLISH YOUR MAIN CHARACTER. Just as readers need to know where we are in the story world, we also need to know who we’re with and whether we like them. If your story is about Jane, start with Jane in action, doing or saying something that lets us know who she is and what is driving her. If you can manage it, also endear her to us. Show her in a moment of vulnerability or tenderness. Or show her being totally amazing and someone we’d like to be, or at least know. When we read, we commit to being with these characters for the length of the story, so even if they’re not exactly honourable, make them fun to be around. See Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. He’s a creepy paedophile but he still manages to be charming.

4. ESTABLISH GENRE. If you start your story with a horrifying scene of slaughter, the reader will expect more horror and violence throughout the story. If you start with a love scene or someone yearning for love, they’ll expect a romance. In film the opening image carries all the weight with establishing just what kind of movie we’re going to see. Make sure your beginning sets up the right expectations from your reader.

5. ESTABLISH TONE. You may have done everything else well, hooked your reader with a question that will keep them turning pages, set up a story world for them to enter and a protagonist they’re keen to follow and set up that it’s a romance BUT what kind of romance is it? This is the tone. 

Is it a light-hearted teenage romcom, or a romantic tragedy like Romeo and Juliet? Is it a quick, easy bodice-ripping read or a more philosophical exploration of a love affair? Your first pages set up expectations of what kind of a book it is. Readers tend to throw books across the room if they are lead astray in those initial pages. For example: Stephen King’s Carrie starts with a scene of blood and humiliation – spoiler alert – it ends the same way. But what if he’d started it with Carrie hanging out with all the girls at the coffee shop, giggling and eyeing off the football star? We’d expect a very different story then – a sweet teen romance, not the gory horror of Carrie’s revenge.

It’s all about grounding the reader, compelling them forward into the story and setting up their expectations of what the story will give them. Don’t think about it too hard or you’ll twist your brains into a horrible knot. Just check that your opening is doing these things. If you can’t tell, show someone else.

I’m offering a special deal for readers, send me your first 10 pages and a one page synopsis, and I’ll give you detailed feedback on what’s working and what may help you hit those marks. All for only $50 AUD. Drop me a line if you’re keen. I’d love to help you make your story the very best it can be.

Lots of love,

Edwina xx

THE IMPORTANCE OF GROUNDING YOUR READER

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What does it mean to ground your reader?

It means you should give your reader enough clues at the start of a story or scene so that they can imagine the setting and protagonist.

Many of my students start straight into the action of their stories, leaving such things as the name, sex and age of the protagonist and where the action is taking place, a mystery. They say they like to reveal these things as the story goes on.

However, while this may work in film when the audience can see a character and setting in action, readers of prose are left scrambling in a dark void, trying to find something, anything, to base their experience of the story upon.

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The writer has a clear image of the scene in her mind. The writer knows where and when and who, but the reader can’t find a way into the story unless the writer shares some of this knowledge.

You can still keep many aspects of your story mysterious, but please, let the reader in on the essentials.

Where are we? When?

Who are we with? Name them.

What’s going on?

Why – you can let that unfold more slowly.

For instance, instead of

She rolled over.

“Get up!” a strange voice said.

She got up and ran as fast as she could in the other direction.

By just filling in a few important details you could have:

Rosemary rolled over in a pile of leaves, deep in the forest. She had no idea how she’d got there, but she recognised the forest as the place her grandmother took her to collect mushrooms in Autumn.

“Get up!” a strange man’s voice said from behind her.

Rosemary bolted upright and leapt to her feet, running as fast as she could away from the voice, along the secret paths her grandmother had shown her.

The mystery of how and why Rosemary has found herself in the forest, and who the stranger is, are still intact. But in the second example the reader can envisage the scene. Not only that, we have an idea how old she is, younger rather than older, and we are more likely to care about her because she has a relationship with her grandmother.

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Because all readings are subjective, with the reader imposing her own world view on the story world the author created, the forest may not be exactly the same as the writer envisaged, but the reader has somewhere to place the action, a protagonist to relate to, and is much more likely to keep on reading.

It only takes a line or two to fill in those important specific details to give the reader enough clues to enter your story world at the beginning of your story.

You’ll need to do the same work of grounding when you start a new scene as well. This can be as simple as, Three long years later… Or … Back at the busy cafe Fred stood in the line for coffee.
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It only takes a few telling details to set up your story world and protagonist in time and place so your reader isn’t left flailing in the dark, struggling to find a way in.

 

Yes it’s a writers job to keep secrets from the reader and reveal them slowly to keep the reader hooked, but some things, like who the protagonist is and where the story is set, are essential to establish right at the start so that the reader can even begin to enter your story world.

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Hope that helps!

Take care and keep smiling. Remember writers need never be bored stuck at home, there’s always more stories to write.

Now get writing 🙂

Lots of love

Edwina xx