Each week for as long as it takes, I’m going to discuss an important craft element an author should consider on the first page of every story. As always, I hope the posts will help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.
Like I said last week, the first page has a rotten job. Partly, it can get it done by shunting some of its work onto a character. It’s hard to get a reader to love a page. It’s a lot easier to get them to love a character. People are hard-wired to care about other people.
How do you take advantage of that? By focusing your first page on a character that a.) your readers will be likely to care about immediately and b.) your readers will continue to care about throughout your opening chapters.
Most authors, even when they’re just starting out, seem to know this intuitively. It’s pretty rare to see a first-page attempt that doesn’t feature a character at all. But I often see authors fail in the execution. They start with a minor character involved in a major plot episode, or they try to emulate TV and movies by starting with a minor or throwaway character who sets the stage for the grand dramatic entrance of the major character on page ten. Or they use the first page of their novel for a prologue that introduces an important plot element that creates a mystery (they’re commonly murders or other crimes, a stranger coming to town, or an Important Thing being broken or going missing). All of these approaches to first pages can work on a limited basis for certain types of stories, but you run some serious risks when you attempt them. To wit:
– Your writing may not be good enough. In order to pull off the “mysterious thing” opening, you need to have a flawless command of pacing and a heck of a mystery or high concept to introduce. You need to know exactly how much information to give the reader to get them hooked and then get the hell out of the way so that you can introduce them to a character as quickly as possible. This is not an easy structure to make work, so if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing with it, you’re probably better off going with a simpler opening.
– Your writing may be too good. If, in your “mysterious thing” opening, you introduce a character that the reader cares about too much, only to kill him or her immediately or never show him or her to the reader again, the reader may be very disappointed, possibly to the point of giving up on the book entirely. Even great books can run into this problem; I put off reading A Game of Thrones for years because of its prologue.
– You may create frustrated expectations. Really, this is another flavor of the “your writing may be too good” problem. Another fantasy mainstay, The Eye of the World, falls afoul of this. If you open with a scene that’s so far removed from your main narrative that the reader won’t understand its relevance until they’re a hundred pages into the book, why are you starting your book there at all? Unless the scene’s relevance is shown quickly, many readers will either forget about the scene or become frustrated by it, and either way you’ll be counting on something else to carry them through the first hundred pages. In most cases, you ought to start with whatever that is.
– Your reader can leave too easily. I apply this warning to any attempt to emulate TV or movies. Writers for broadcast television (less so today than they once could, but it still applies) and writers for movies can get away with things that writers of books can’t. They have tricks that we don’t (like actors and soundtracks—my god the things they get away with because of soundtracks) and their media are stickier. When was the last time you walked out of a movie theater partway through a film? When was the last time you flipped the channel away from a broadcast show without at least waiting for the first commercial break? TV and movie viewers have already bought the content when they start it. Readers haven’t. When was the last time you put a book down before getting to the end of the first page? Probably the last time you went browsing for books—reading the first page is part of how readers determine what to buy.
So, deviation over, why should you start your story with a major sympathetic character? Because so many readers read stories for the characters. If you’ve written a great book, you have a great character somewhere inside it. Don’t be coy with that character—give them to the reader immediately so that the reader can fall in love and decide to read your book.
You’ll get readers who care most about your world and you’ll get readers who care most about your plot, but a significant chunk of your readership is likely to come, and stay, for the characters you write. Give them what they want. The longer you wait to offer your reader a character they can care about for the long haul, the greater the risk you run of that reader bouncing off your story.