Monday, September 13, 2010

The First Page

Back in the day (and by "in the day" I mean a few years ago), many books on writing pitched the idea of having a killer first chapter. Now, people want greatness quicker, right this instant, NOW. Screw the first chapter, we want to be hooked on the first page, the first paragraph, even first sentence.

Well, how do you do that, you might be asking.

A big chunk of it comes from your literary brilliance, obviously. However, another chunk comes from where you decide to begin your story. Many people think to start their stories from the very "beginning" of everything and follow a logical, chronological flow. Now, that's fine if that's the best way to tell your story, but if you're looking for a way to begin your story that will create the biggest punch for the reader earlier on, then consider thinking about all that goes on in your story and selecting a scene that creates that punch and pulls the reader into your story. What this mean is you will probably have to play with the movement of your story, working on flashbacks and flashforwards, etc., so that you can create a first page, a beginning that is strong enough to pull your reader in and at the same time, not feel "added on" just for the sake of intriguing your reader...only to deflate them in the rest of the story. It's hard work, but it can be done. It is done, every day; there are a lot of books out there to show you that this is true. Take some time to peruse some of your favorite novels, to check out new novels. How do you like the first page? The first couple of pages? The first chapter? Where are the authors starting their stories, and how might those "starts" add to the strength of the story overall? It might even be interesting to ask how might the story have been different if the story started in another way.

Bernice McFadden is my favorite author, and her novel Sugar has been on my top ten fave books since it was released over ten years ago. I was hooked on her book after the first line, but the first page is even more stellar:


JUDE was dead.

On a day when the air held a promise of summer and people laughed aloud, putting aside for a brief moment their condition, color and where they ranked among humanity, Jude, dangling on the end of childhood and reaching out toward womanhood, should have been giggling with others her age among the sassafras or dipping her bare feet in Hodges Lake and shivering against the winter chill it still clutched. Instead she was dead.

She'd been taken down by the sharp blade of jealousy, and her womanhood-so soft, pink and virginal-was sliced from her and laid to rest on the side of the road near her body. Her pigtails, thick dark ropes of hair, lay splayed out above her head, mixed in with the pine needles and road dust. Her dress, white and yellow, her favorite colors, was pulled up to her neck, revealing the small bosom that had developed over the winter.

The murder had white man written all over it. (That was only a half truth.) But no one would say it above a whisper. It was 1940. It was Bigelow, Arkansas. It was a black child. Need any more be said?

No one cared except the people who carried the same skin color. No one cared except the parents who had nursed her, stayed up all night soothing and rocking her when she was colicky. Applauded her when she took her first steps and cried when the babbling, gurgling sounds that came from her sweet mouth finally formed the words Mamma and then later, Papa.


The first sentence alone kept me keep reading, but each sentence after it layered itself upon that short, simple, "need to know more" sentence. In just this one page, we are invited to partake in the time period of the story, the type of people who live within the pages, the setting, the layer of pain that lingers over the black folks in the story, etc. It opens the story for the reader much like a wide shot at the beginning of a movie encapsulates place, time, setting before coming in close to the characters in the movie. What's interesting is the very first character we meet is already dead, yet she lives, like a ghost throughout the entire story, floating through the lives of her parents and the people of the town. The majority of the book takes place 15 years after Jude's death, so McFadden could have cut the beginning and started well after the death, detailing Jude's death later in the story through exposition and flashback, but it would have changed the entire story in a drastic and (for me anyway) negative way.

We need to be able to see our stories in such a way that we, too, can draft a first page that evokes as much of the story's essence as McFadden does.

And we can.

-----------------------------
Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically, and her debut solo novel, Death at the Double Inkwell is now available for purchase. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, promoting her debut project, writing screenplays, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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11 comments :

  1. Thanks Shon - it isn't enough to be told that we need a dynamite first page - we need to know how to do this and you have very beautifully illustrated that. I do believe it is like anything else in our fiction - it has to be part of the whole otherwise it would be like a talent contest where the girl came out doing running cartwheels carrying sparklers only to stand for the rest of her eight minutes quietly singing a boring song offkey!
    I now cannot wait to read Sugar!
    Jan Morrison

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  2. This is an amazing post! I am one of those readers who needs to be hooked from the very start. I have never been able to force myself to keep reading a book with a "slow start."

    Because that's how I am as a reader, that's how I tend to write as a writer. All of my stories start either in the middle or very close to the end.

    You have the perfect example by showing us your favorite author's opening. If you write the type of stories that entertain you the most, not only will your 1st page rock so will the entire story and the ending.

    Thank you so much for this post!

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  3. You've nailed it, Shon. This discussion of instant gratification meets instant hook needs to be read, reread, and applied. Writers and editors, take note. Great post!

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  4. That is a great opening scene. It would have hooked me, as well.

    Readers today really do want to be hooked from the opening sentence. And agents do also!

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  5. Firsts are sooo important... first chapters, first page, first sentence. Great post.

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  6. Great post, Shon! The illustration was wonderful, not just because it's riveting and evocative, but because it runs counter to the oversimplification of "start with action". The "action" is all implied and foreshadowed or takes place in a fictional memory planted in the reader's mind (brilliantly done).

    Thanks for this!

    Marian Allen

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  7. Excellent post, Shon. I'm a big fan of killer first sentences for novels, but according to a workshop I attended at the Colorado Gold Conference, they're even more critical for short stories, specifically shorts for e-zines. Has to do with the possible short attention span of those who read online and from their various e-gadgets.

    Patricia

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  8. My favourite series (Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy) took a third of the first book before it finally hooked me. I still can't believe I stuck with it; it must have been a time when I had nothing else better to do. I don't have that kind of patience anymore. But I am glad I did read that book; it was well worth it. I'm now reading it a second time and it is a much smoother read because I'm picking up all the foreshadowing now. It's beautifully crafted; just slow.

    Elle
    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

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  9. I think it kind of sucks how the new generation of readers are so fast paced thanks to internet and movies. They want to feel the thrill and whatnot, I understand, but still it's amazing to what it has become after only a few years. People want bigger explosions, fast-paced and nonstop action, and less flashbacks.

    An interesting piece and awesome thoughts. I enjoy killer first sentences and hooks all the time. Heck! I even use them in my own writing. A writer has to have a reader by page one!

    Write on!

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  10. "You got me at hello."

    We are such time starved creatures aren't we? Has there always been only twenty-four hours in every day?

    Time starved? Perhaps. That means of course that those special moments that we set aside for us must not be wasted...not one instant of them.

    I find that a book that fails to alert my senses to incoming emotion in the first page loses the time battle and is placed non too gently to the back of the shelf or on the small doomed "Oh ...yeah, that book."
    pile.

    Another enjoyable post from your clever pen.
    Well done.

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  11. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    And you know, personally, I love a riveting first sentence, page, chapter, but it's not all about action. I love language and the beauty of how an author takes words and make them sing on the page.

    Like Marian said, the illustration I used isn't huge on action, per se, not "now" action anyway, but the writing evokes action that has happened, characters, setting, time period in a way that by the time I flip to page 2, I'm IN the story.

    LOVE that.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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