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.”

Photo by Vincent Gerbouin on Pexels.com

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

WILL SHE OR WON’T SHE? – SHAPING PLOT THROUGH CHARACTER DECISIONS

Recently I attended a Screen Queensland, Wendall Thomas screenwriting workshop on developing plot through decisions.

Wendall’s main message was this – Structure your plot through character decisions.

As we know the very best plots spring from the intrinsic motivations and flaws of our characters. Their goals, hopes and weaknesses create meaningful plotlines that are compelling because we are invested in the characters. Alternatively, plots that are imposed on characters can feel contrived and don’t have the same emotional drive that keeps us reading.

According to Wendall, each decision has three elements.

MOTIVATION – what situation/idea/goal/event forces a decision upon this character?

DECISION – what choice do they make in response to that motivating factor?

And finally

CONSEQUENCES – what events does the characters decision set in motion?

These elements remind me of my days teaching kids with behaviour disorders in juvenile justice centres. On every wall were posters proclaiming a very similar process to get them to reflect before they took rash actions that could potentially land them in even deeper trouble. STOP. THINK. OPTIONS. CONSEQUENCES. ACTION.

Stop and Think before you act!

A character has to act not just react. This process of shaping the plot through their decisions forces them to take active responsibility and turns a sappy passive protagonist into a vital force in your story, novel or screenplay.

In all forms it’s important to transform these internal decisions into external actions. To not just say, Bobby realised that killing the cat would get him in trouble, but to show Bobby, swinging the cat by the tail until it shrieked, but then stopping, holding the cat to his chest, wrenching its face up to look in its eyes, then setting it free.

Dora Marr – Boy with Cat

Each decision has its consequences. Some good, some bad. As Wendall kept saying – every decision takes your character one step forward and then two steps back.

Let’s just say Bobby made that decision to set the cat free, but it was wounded and someone had already seen him with it. When it limped home, the owners called the police and Bobby was arrested. As the police approach him Bobby starts throwing punches, swearing and reacting as he’s always done, but one of the officers speaks kindly to him and Bobby thinks better of it and calms down. Goes with them peacefully. 

After the inciting incident that sets up our story, the protagonist must decide whether or not to take up the challenge it presents. Once they do, they are propelled into the second act and continue to make decisions that move them one step forward and two steps back all the way through to the climax. Some decisions seem sensible, but others, motivated perhaps by their fatal flaw or a deep-seated weakness, we know from the start are only going to make things worse, much worse.

At the watchhouse, Bobby is taken aside by a corrupt officer who tells him he’ll let him go if he becomes an informer and feeds him information about the drug running bikie gang Bobby’s violent uncle heads. Bobby shakes the corrupt officer’s hand, puts the cash in his pocket and we know things are only going to get a whole lot worse from here.

So remember, MOTIVATION, DECISION, CONSEQUENCES and show us those decisions in ACTIONS that manifest the characters feelings and realisations.

As we hurtle towards the climax of our stories, propelled by decisions that really aren’t going so well, the decisions become increasingly reckless as the character is put under more and more pressure. Consequences get more and more dangerous.

Let’s say after informing a couple of times, Bobby sees Uncle Roger stash a couple of gym bags full of cash under the house before he heads out on his Harley. Bobby gets his phone and clicks on the police officer’s number. But then, just as the officer answers, Bobby shoves the phone back in his pocket, and scrambles under the house, emerging with a bag full of cash.

Then he turns up at his young girlfriend’s place and tells her to pack a bag. They’re both heading off down the street when the cat he hurt crosses their path. His girlfriend stops to pat it and they waste precious time. The bikie gang roars around the corner.

UHOH!

Decisions that your character makes early on in the story manifest themselves in consequences in the final act. Bobby’s decision to become an informer brings him into all sorts of dangerous circumstances he could have avoided. Even the cat plays a role in delaying his escape.

In every book you read and every film or TV show you watch, keep an eye out for how those character decisions are shaping the story.

And if in your own story your character isn’t making any decisions of their own, but is only reacting to external forces, give them some backbone and get them making decisions to give your plot a whole lot more OOMPH!

Start making history with your stories

Hope that helps you whip your stories into shape.

Keep smiling and keep writing through all the madness now surrounding us.

All is well. 

Lots of love

Edwina xx