Writing is a weird art-form. One of the most helpful, while still perplexing, realizations I’ve had is that the experience of a writer and the reader are literally opposite. A reader will typically walk away from a book and talk about the ending, (not exclusively of course, but the ending will stick) in part because that is simply how memory tends to work, but far more importantly because the nature of a dramatic journey is to emotionally load a climax to make the ending of a story have a powerful impact.
It’s not unusual even for a reader to forget the beginning of a story outright, after all if you quiz all but the most studious of readers I doubt they will be able to recite the first lines or recall much of a first scene of a book.
Now, for a writer the approach in terms of their headspace and devotion to any given section is the opposite. It’s almost cruel really. The first pages, especially of a novel are absolutely vital not only for setting up a story, but also to hold a reader’s interest. While a reader might to explicitly put down a book and go ‘wow I really enjoyed how the first few pages introduced a strong character and laid the groundwork for the rest of the story’ this is the process going on behind the scenes.
In many respects the end of a story doesn’t matter
Wait, what did you just say?
In many respects the end of a story doesn’t matter in the sense of once a reader has taken the journey there they have appreciated and absorbed everything about the story, 90% of it anyway, and oftentimes all a reader wants is to resolve all the tension the tale has developed. Or perhaps in more mercenary terms by the time a reader has gotten to the climax of your book they’ve already bought it.
Now don’t take this thought too far, there are lots of reasons to ensure a brilliant ending to your story, for example you don’t want readers feeling let-down when they finish, nor do you want your book turned into a projectile against the nearest all and/or rubbish bin. What I am trying to say though is as an aspiring writing one wants to devote the right amount of effort to the right parts of a story. No-one will read your brilliant ending if no-one can get past the beginning, nor will an ending be truly brilliant unless developed that way from a great start.
Suffice to say beginnings are important. I’m no expert but I have thought long and hard about first pages and I’ve come to the following conclusions:
- First and foremost a sense of character is needed. Not all novels start with the MC, and even not all start with a clear actor in charge. Even so the narration needs to have a sense of agency behind it, that someone is thinking, doing or being affected by the words. This is why general descriptions of weather or setting tend to bore, unless they feel like they are someone’s context
- Secondly any action should be designed to be well understood despite not knowing the who/what/where/why. There is a piece of advice out there that is often misused, and that is that reader’s need to care about characters to care about any action done by them or happening to them. I say misused because people seem to think this means trying to cram a mass amount of backstory into a very important action scene straight up in the beginning pages of a novel (this is also exacerbated by In Media Res). The trick (In my humble opinion) is to find action that is intriguing and understandable on its own, without the backstory, for example a chase scene, an argument about rent, a zombie apocalypse (uh, sort of). My point is something that doesn’t need an intricate backstory to understand, but adds a bit of tension and opens the door for us to care about people as the story develops. After all caring about characters isn’t a static feeling immediately created by one brilliant dash of prose, it develops as the character is shown.
- Finally a good first page scatters the snowflakes that will eventually begin the avalanche, events that are out of the ordinary and not so convoluted they need backstory to understand, though tense enough to create a sense of something more brewing in the near future.
It’s often suggested to truly hone the first page once the whole story is completely drafted, which is advice I believe in wholeheartedly it’s a little too much pressure to craft a first page with even the above simple points (let alone will the other points creative experts will tell you it needs) before you’ve even got a draft down.
What are your thoughts on first pages, do you have any amazing examples, terrible ones? How about any points you think are vital for a first page, or few pages?