Literary agent Noah Lukeman’s terrific book, The First Five Pages, is a good resource for writers. Yet so many of us novel writers forget the importance of such sage advice in our drafts.
Writing Tip for Today: Any book–not just a novel–must give readers a direction in the first few pages. Some may say the first few paragraphs. Take a look at a novel you’ve read and enjoyed. What are some of the things you learn about the story in those opening pages? Chances are, they contain these things:
- Character and Story. You meet a character who will tell you the story. (POV Character) This character will relate some sort of thwarted desire, a path he/she will now travel, or a mystery to solve. The character must convey not only the wants/desires of the character in that moment, but at least allude to the larger want/desire of the story.
- Enough to Follow. We hear that back story is highly dangerous in the opening pages. Often a writer can slip in a sentence here or there to hint at where the character has been, but overall the reader wants to move forward. When inserting any sort of back story, remember to weave it into the scene and avoid the cold mashed potatoes pitfall–if your character is eating mashed potatoes when you launch into back story (also known as flashbacks) then the longer you’re in the past, the colder the character’s mashed potatoes are becoming.
- Setting and Time. The opening of the story should set the reader in a particular time (period) and place. Beware the “driving to the story” opening, wherein your character travels from one place to where the main story will unfold. You have to ask yourself why you need to show the character in a place that doesn’t figure into the story.
- Allusion to the Larger Theme. You may not understand this when you read it at the beginning of the novel, but hinting at the book’s overall story goal or theme sets up readers to understand the book on a deeper level, resulting in a more satisfactory experience. Does your novel contain a hint of the theme in its opening? Sometimes a weak opening can be fixed by lopping off Chapter One.