Monday, February 18, 2013

The First Five Pages

I was out of ideas for a blog this week so I asked my current online class (I'm teaching CAN THIS MANUSCRIPT BE SAVED) and I got three great ideas. Storyboarding I've already done. Same with subtext. But we've never really talked about the first five pages.

When I started thinking about it, I realized we might have more than one blog here. There's the way you "begin" the book...the first line. The decision of what's the best opening scene. And the ever present bedeviler...backstory.

Today we're going to talk about the decision for your opening scene. Next week we'll talk about the first line and the week after getting in backstory.


How do you pick a first scene? What do you want to show people in that all important first five pages?

1. You want to start the book with action. A book that starts with action immediately gets rolling. You don't have to wonder what scene two will be because you will have started the action/reaction/decision ball rolling.

Which means...the first thing you need to decide is what ACTION will immediately drop readers into the story?

Now, I don't mean a fight. LOL An action can be something as simple as the Main Character meets his old girl friend in the post office of their small town and, as always, it's awkward.

Or the pregnant Main Character wakes up achy and sore, rubbing her belly, praying today is the day she has this baby! Her unsympathetic husband dashes off to work and her water breaks.

Someone drops a letter into the post office box.

Someone steals a diamond.

The Main Character receives a note saying his daughter has been kidnapped.

The Main Character buries his dad.

The Main Characters are read a will and told they will be sharing a mansion for the next year ... or they'll lose their inheritance.

You can easily see how any one of those could get a book going!

2. This action scene should also DISPLAY character.  Why? Well, my definition of plot or journey steps (take your pick) is "All the scenes/steps it takes to get your character from who he or she is at the opening of the book (the terrible trouble, inciting incident or the day moment everything changed) to who he or she is at the satisfying conclusion." Which means the first thing you need to do is SHOW or DEMONSTRATE who your main character IS in the book's that as the story progresses we can see how he has to grow and ultimately have a measure for how he has grown. Obviously, if your MC isn't the star of the first scene, (if you're writing a thriller and the first scene is the terrorists...for instance) then this part is delayed until the first scene he's in.

So how do you "display" character?

In the scene where the MC meets his old girlfriend and it's awkward...You can get a lot of character into that scene, most of it through action. He fidgets or she fidgets. Gazes might go anywhere but on each other. Or maybe they'd hold each other's gaze? Maybe your MC would wonder what the hell happened to the relationship he thought so perfect? Or maybe he'd wonder if she's plotting to kill him! LOL

A lot of that depends on the kind of book you're writing...

Which takes us to #3

3. Your first scene should DEMONSTRATE what kind of book you are writing.

Why do we want to demonstrate what kind of book we are writing? Reader expectation. You never get a second chance to make a first impression!

Whether we like it or not readers are accustomed to certain things and you don't want to disappoint -- or confuse -- them. I've read many a contest entry where the book opened with a horrific murder, then segued into a light romance. The one time I got the opportunity to ask a contest entrant why she’d done this, she said she was “told in workshops” to open her book with something jarring that would cause readers to keep reading. So she murdered someone. The murder was relevant in terms of the fact that the person murdered was the hero's uncle and his death caused the hero to come home for the funeral -- which is how he meets the heroine in her romance, but when a book opens with something like a detailed murder, readers expect to be shown how the murder is solved. You can't open with a murder and then drop the subject. . .even if the funeral is what brings the hero home so he can meet the heroine. Too many questions would be raised in that murder. None of them would be "satisfactorily" solved without an investigation.

A scene wherein Dad gets a ransom notes tells us we're about to read a thriller or a suspense. The meeting of the old girlfriend and boyfriend probably heralds in a romance (or a suspense if he's worried she's going to kill him!) A scene with a teenager fighting with his mom could herald in a coming of age, or YA.

To sum up...

Your first scene should draw (draw, not drag) readers into the book...the real story you are telling.
You can draw readers into the story with an "action" of some sort that doesn't merely give you a chance to DISPLAY character but also leads to a reaction that leads to a decision that leads to another action and on and on until readers are suddenly in chapter three! But that won't happen unless you have the right opening for the kind of book you are writing.
Make sense?
Happy Monday ...

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