The first pages of your novel are the most important ones. How to write beginnings is an art and a necessity. You must have read such claims, or variations of them, at least a million times. This is so for a simple reason: it’s true.
In fact, as Les Edgerton says in Hooked, a tremendous number of possibly good and even brilliant novels and short stories never get read beyond the first few paragraphs or pages by agents and editors.
If you are indies and don’t have to deal with agents and editors you could be tempted to think you are safe. But agents and editors, for all their vetoing powers and, one would hope, good understanding of the dynamics of the market, remain basically readers.
As a result, first pages have to grab the attention of readers. Period. And they have to do so in such an effective way that after reading the excerpt of your novel your potential readers will be not just glad, but eager to part from their money in order to read the rest of your story.
In fact, pages and pages only reporting inane facts written down in a lifeless style aren’t going anywhere. Such pages can only accelerate the decision making process of our potential readers, and not exactly to our advantage.
After all, just as for a job interview we tend to dress more formally than for a night out with our friends, in some way we also know that our first pages have to be terrific. We just don’t know how to translate that vague word–terrific–into something more concrete.
However, although beginnings have to be organized in such a way as to tickle reader’s curiosity, they require the same basic elements of any other part of our works. Namely, flawless grammar, action, and pertinence.
Even though grammar can seem a boring subject, and it’s often full of contradictions, it serves an essential end. That of establishing a common set of rules to allow us to communicate with each other. So, if we really want to be read as widely as possible we need to be able to write perfectly formed sentences. Sentences able to transmigrate the ideas in our head into our readers’ heads. Our sentences must make telepathy real, to paraphrase Steven King.
Good grammar is so important that even if we only managed to write a dull page after the other, we should at least aim to write them all in a flawless style. After all, a boring story can often be improved. Instead, a tangle of words and mangled sentences buries the story and drives a pole through its heart.
At this point someone might argue that there are several authors who write in a non standard variety of English, who flout the rules, and so on. This is true. But in order to bend a rule, or write in a very peculiar or non standard style, we should first know pretty well our language and grammar. In fact, non standard varieties of English simply have different set of rules. Rules that must be applied consistently, just as for the standard grammar. In any case, you can have a look at this post–The rules of language–for a closer look about when it can be acceptable to break a rule.
Once upon a time whenever I read about action I thought about some of those scenes full of screaming cars and ricocheting bullets. I envisioned undersea caves teeming with sharks. I thought of bullfights, racehorses, and dogfights–I love the way English lets me create such heterogeneous lists…
In short, action for me meant movement. And as a result, I often found it difficult to tailor action scenes to properly open my stories. In fact most of the time they didn’t need all that toing and froing.
Then, one day I realized that action can refer to physical action just as to mental action. Take a look at the following famous incipit lines.
- My mother was the village whore and I loved her very much. Pigs Don’t Fly – Mary Brown
- It was hell being a hero. Seize the Fire – Laura Kinsale
- To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor. Silent in the Grave– Deanna Raybourne
- I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. Notes from Underground —Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In addition, action has also to do with the way we write. In fact, as Jack Bickham clearly explains in his book, some styles of writing are definitively more dynamic than others.
Even if our opening scene is written in a flawless style and is packed with action, it is of paramount importance that such action be pertinent to the rest of the story.
This means that if we, for example, have a book about a pianist writing a sort of confession, we may want to begin our story with him telling us about the way music has always represented his only reason to live:
I studied. I practiced. I studied and practiced. Day after day, I got lost in the upright double infinite that the 88 keys of my piano represented.
My piano…my life. I lost my virginity when most of my friends were already busy changing diapers, or taking their children to the school.
Then we could go on telling our readers of how music is now instead menacing to put an end to his life.
Though incomplete, the above passage creates an undoubtedly personal point of view. Also, it has a certain progression in the length of the sentences. A progression that mimics music. In addition, it creates strong contrasts, and make two different worlds collide.
Using these three rules we can be reasonably sure that our readers aren’t going to feel cheated into buying a book they thought it was about something and that was instead about something else entirely.
Really, there’s no need to put our main character in a quandary up in the Andes if the rest of the story has nothing to do with such a beginning. The reasons for avoiding such a ruse are simple. First of all, it is a matter of integrity and honesty. Secondly, we must bear in mind that readers have good memory for writers who cheat. At least, I surely have.