The first five pages determine whether anyone will read the following three hundred. Truth is, you’re probably screwing it up.
I know I do. Frequently.
I worked as a screenplay reader for a while. I had to go through stacks of manuscripts, grading them for a production company. It sounds fun, doesn’t it?
It was incredibly painful at times.
After two months, I could determine the quality of a script before the end of the first page with terrifying accuracy.
Did I mention that I had to read each script to very last page even if I knew it was an abomination to all that is good and decent in the world?
Screenplays and novels aren’t all that different, really. Sure they have a different format, and in a screenplay you don’t have the luxury of hearing a character’s thoughts – you rely on action and dialogue. Show rather than tell. Timing and structure can be different too.
But story is story. I’d like to divulge some things I’ve learned.
If you do these things you will screw up your first chapter and immediately lose me as a reader:
Start with action.
If your character is bathing in gallons of adrenaline, on the verge of death within the first few pages, I toss it. I don’t give a shit if he/she dies.
Do I sound heartless?
Starting a book with action is like saying, “I love you” on the first date. Premature. The purpose of the first page is to make me care. Give me feelings for your character. I want to feel love, hate, intrigue, elation, depression, or horror.
Rob me of that and I’m gone.
Starting with action is revealing to the reader that you don’t have the ability to hook them emotionally. You’re showing that the only way you know how to hook the reader is through danger.
I need to care before I’m willing to go on an adventure with your character. Don’t make me travel with an utter stranger.
Once I care about your character, then I am terrified if they’re on the verge of death. If you lead with a life threatening situation, it shows me that you don’t know how to build personal connection, and I wonder if I’m ever going to get it in the rest of the story if you don’t do it at the beginning, which is the most vital point.
Don’t show me a boring day in the life. Morning alarm, work, blah blah blah… If you start with a day in the life, then there’d better be something interesting about that day.
Don’t bore your audience before the inciting incident. Many authors follow the rule: show the “normal” for your story, then through the inciting incident, we can see a change in the character, and at the end of the story it goes back to the new normal.
I get that. I’m not contradicting it.
All I’m saying is please don’t bore me to death with normalcy before anything gets interesting. I’m on Twitter. I’m a little ADD, as is 80% of Americans. Do you really expect me to sit through fifteen pages of boring day-in-the-life before thinking to myself, “Maybe there is a better book out there in the world I should be reading.”
Start with cliché.
Don’t start with physical description, weather, or dialogue. Literary agents are renown for dismissing a manuscript for any of these reasons alone.
Never let your character to gaze into the mirror. This is a great excuse to describe their physical attributes (or to be introspective/wonder where their lost innocence has gone). It’s been done in every single book and movie ever.
Avoid common phrases like: “dilapidated house,” “ramrod straight,” and “drop dead gorgeous.” Come up with something new. Common phrases lose their impact.
You know that, right? Then look through your writing and see if you act that way.
Question of the day: What are your pet peeves about how novels start?