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Monday, March 18, 2013

The Opening Pages

Picture Credit: http://strangersinkenya.blogspot.com/
No matter what genre you write, or what your story line is, there are certain things that readers unconsciously look for at the beginning of the story.

Much attention is placed on the first sentence and the first paragraph--that's good. But today let's look at what you should be present in the first 3-4 pages.

In opening your story, you should have 3 goals in mind:

  1. Hook the reader 
    • The reader should be hooked by the first sentence to want to know more. A good first sentence will buy a minimum of the first paragraph. A really good first paragraph will buy a minimum of the first page. But if the first few pages start going downhill, then you'll loose your reader fast. There are many specifics about creating good hooks that we won't go into here--this blog wil deal specifically with story-related hooks.
  2. Introduce the story
    • Your readers are taking a step into your character's life and mind. You must give them an idea of what is happening and who everyone else around the character is without overwhelming them with information.
  3. Forecast the ending
    • You must also forecast the ending. Now before your eyes bug out of your head at the thought of giving away your intense, unexpected ending--don't worry, that's not what I'm saying. Readers want to predict the ending...they also love being wrong. One genre that gets harder with unexpected endings is romance. Usually everyone lives happily ever after and readers like that--but they still like having twists and turns that they didn't expect. Don't try to feed the reader everything that will happen, but mixed in with the taste of the story problem should be a clue to what the main character wants, and that will forecast the ending that your readers will be guessing at.
Great, so now we have these 3 goals. How do we accomplish them? There are 7 elements that should be present in every story. As you make sure you have covered all seven, you will find that doing so will mean that you have met the 3 goals.

Essential Elements for Opening a Story:

  1. Open with the character in the middle of the inciting incident
    • When people are in their comfort zones, they don't want to leave. Something has to push them out. It could be a small something that is the final straw. It could be a large something. But whether the change a person makes is a positive or a negative one, something brought it on. What is that something for your main character? There is generally at least some sort of chain reaction leading to the inciting incident. The chain should begin at the start of the story so the readers can see the main character uncomfortable and being pushed out of his or her comfort zone.
  2. Introduce an initial surface problem
    • The initial surface problem is what the story seems to be about. Generally, this is an action-based problem, with the real story problem being more about what the character has to overcome emotionally. In Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, the story initially seems to be about Ender being taken from his home for military training. But the real story problem that is developed along the way is what the training does to Ender psychologically and how he copes with it.
  3. Introduce the story problem
    • I have a separate posting all about the story problem. See it here. Basically, the story problem is the key thing that the main character must overcome. You might be thinking to yourself that in the first couple pages the main character doesn't know about the extent of the problems he or she will be facing. Good! That means you have a story problem with depth. But is there a hint of a problem--even an undeveloped one?
  4. Establish the story rules
    • The story rules need to be established to the best of the main character's knowledge. Maybe there are unheard-of monsters in existence that the main character will meet later. No problem. But if monsters are a norm, then that norm should be established. Are people flying around in personal space ships? Do they travel in horse and buggy? Is the main character involved in a cult? The reader should be able to quickly get an idea of what rules to expect in the story.
  5. Build the character
    • In the opening sentence, the reader should be able to glean just a little bit about the main character. In the first paragraphs and pages, the character should be introduced well enough that the reader will feel comfortable with him or her. DO NOT make a detailed list of facts about the character or have your main character stand in front of a mirror examining himself or herself so you can give a checklist of physical appearance. But put time and thought into what the character says and does. Everything happening should be revealing the main character. Starting him or her out in an uncomfortable situation helps with that, because discomfort forces actions and thoughts. Does he or she run to or away from the opposition? Or does the main character stand frozen in the middle? Why?
  6. Relate the setting
    • This is another thing that tends to be a trouble spot. A list of exactly what everything looks like is boring! Don't tell everything. Give small, but specific, details and move on. For practice, have your main character walk into a busy room. What does he or she specifically notice? An attractive person that he or she would like to get to know? The location of all the exits? The inviting fireplace? A friend that he or she picks out of the crowd?  Your main character should see something different than another of your characters. Focus on the thing that is different that the character sees. When you give a description of a character (whether it is your main character or a side character) do the same thing. Is there a noticeable scar or mole? Is the character the only one of his or her race or even species in the community? What is unique?
  7. Backstory
    • I'm guessing that by this point you've already guessed that my first piece of advice is to NOT make an itemized list. Tell tidbits as they cross a character's mind or are needed for the situation. Characters are more interesting if the backstory comes in pieces. Readers will feel like they are getting to know your character over time. In your opening pages, you may not need any specifically-spelled-out backstory. But if your character didn't have an existence before page 1, then he or she won't be believable (unless page 1 tells about his or her birth). The fact that you know the character's backstory inside and out will come through in your pages.
Wow! That's grazing a lot of different topics. If you have these 7 things present (even if it is just to hint at some of them) then you will meet your 3 goals for your first few pages of your book. And we all want our first few pages to be spectacular. Just don't forget that you need to carry these things out through the rest of your book. Meeting these goals will set up a promise of what is to come--you then must deliver on that promise.


  1. Do you think it's okay in the first draft of your book to throw a lot of back story in? I have a bad habit of doing this. :)
    Thanks for following my blog, by the way, and for your concern for my health (sigh) issues. :)

    1. I don't think there is a remote problem with putting back story into your first draft. Everybody probably does things just a little bit differently, but I think the first draft is specifically FOR writing what you are feeling at the time without much stopping and correcting. I do some outlining before the fist draft begins, but even the my outline changes a little as I go along.

      So I say go for it. In your editing process you will have time to later decide if there is too much back story or it is too blocky--and you'll have time to fix it. As far as advise on later trying to decide if you have too much or not in the right parts, I have to recommend an editing technique taht I learned from my editor, Clint Johnson. It has helped me a TON in balancing everything from back story to the characters thoughts and actions. You can check it out here: http://authorrachelkjohnson.blogspot.com/2013/02/editingeditingediting-part-2-balanced.html

      Just to throw out, Clint is always taking new authors and his prices are reasonable if you're ever interested. I have LOVED what he helped me accomplish with my manuscript. You'll find a link to his website on that same blog page I referred you to above.

      I hope that helps!