I read a lot of first pages — the openings of novels or short stories written by friends, by writers’ group members, as contest submissions, or for workshop critiques. Not to mention my own first pages. And I see some common issues.
These include: slow starts, lengthy descriptions, extended internal monologues, flashbacks, and backstory. So what do you do about this? Here are a couple of tips.
1. Don’t start your story in the wrong place. Start in the middle of the action.
Too many stories start too early: with a character waking up, staring thoughtfully out the window, getting up, eating breakfast, sorting through the clothes in the closet, getting dressed, catching the train into the city — a journey that invokes memories of the character’s childhood, and poor relationship with her mother…
As I wrote a couple of years ago, about submissions for a crime fiction award:
At the end of this particular road lies the following opening scene, which I’ve read more than once in recent contest entries:
An obsessed divorced alcoholic maverick cop is awakened from a gruesome and floridly detailed dream about (a) the case that destroyed him (b) that day his hideous childhood ended with him finding his parents’ dead bodies, or (c) the murder of his beautiful wife and children. He struggles, against the cruel light of morning, to find his ringing phone or answer the pounding on the front door. His boss, or a beautiful young female rookie cop, is summoning him to a gory crime scene.
Many pages are then devoted to the cop’s crushing hangover, the long shower he takes to try to rid himself of it (and of the lingering dream, which is rehashed some more), his fumble around his filthy apartment for yesterday’s dirty shirt and socks and underwear, the coffee he drinks and the gruff monosyllabic non-answers he gives the rookie on their way to the crime scene, during which he flashes back to (a) his wife’s unfaithfulness (b) the last victim’s slit throat, which mocked him, like a smile, or (c) his daughter’s budding sexuality. Finally he arrives at the crime scene, where the medical examiner says, “It’s the third victim this week.” And the cop realizes: They have a serial killer on their hands.
If you’ve written this scene, you’re not the first. Or the ten-thousandth. Cut it. Start over.
Stories should start as close to the end as possible. Instead of opening with the character waking up, open with her walking into a downtown skyscraper to find the office held hostage. Or to find a baby in a basket on her desk, with a note: Hi, Mom!
Figure out what the chase is, and cut to it.
2. Don’t leave your characters alone on the page.
When characters are alone on the page, authors are tempted to let them ruminate. To pontificate. To work out their voice — with long and ultimately self-indulgent passages of internal monologue. These frequently amount to summaries of their lives so far. Solve this problem by putting them in action with other people. Make them relate to other humans, and bring them alive in an immediate scene.
No one says this more clearly or consistently than James Scott Bell.
[W]riters think readers have to know certain information before the story can begin.
Remember: Act first, explain later. Readers connect with characters in motion. They don’t connect with exposition.
If you give readers an actual scene, with a disturbance thrown in, they will wait a long time before you need to explain anything to them.
Not only that, they don’t need all your explanations at once, or in narrative form. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said that all the information a reader needs can be given in dialogue, and he’s not far wrong.
So always start with something happening in the present moment. Later, if you decide you want to be stylish or poetic in the first paragraphs, that’s up to you. Tremble when you do, though, and hear my voice in your head. Act first, explain later.
All this advice boils down to one lesson: Don’t waste your first page.