Doghouse on Malibu Beach:

What you should, and shouldn’t, put in the first five pages of your manuscript

At a writers’ conference I attended last spring, an editor compared the first few pages of a manuscript to Malibu beachfront property, some of the most expensive land there is. “Every word of those first few pages counts,” she said. “Just like land that sells by the square inch. You don’t want to put your dog house there!”

So what do you want on those expensive pages? What constitutes a mansion with gleaming windows and a sweep of gardens?

The first few pages of your story—sometimes the first few paragraphs—is all the time you have to hook an editor, or a reader, into the rest of your book. You absolutely have to put your best into those few lines. In fact, in just the first few pages, preferably in the first few paragraphs, you have to:

Place a hook.
Introduce the protagonist.
Introduce the protagonist’s main story problem.
Establish the story’s setting and genre.
Establish the tone of the story.

And finally you have to do a sufficiently good job of entertaining the reader that he wants to go on and read the next paragraph or page.

No wonder writers hate beginnings. My record for changing beginnings belongs to my novel A Matter of Profit, which had four completely different first chapters—and I’m still not crazy about the one that was finally published. Not every really good beginning manages to cram all five things into the first paragraph, but most good beginnings manage most of those things.

One of my favorites is the beginning of the movie Cat Ballou, which starts out with a couple of minstrels singing: It’s a hanging day in Wolf City Wyoming, Wolf City Wyoming, 1894. They’re going to drop Cat Ballou through the gallows floor. Hook, place and time, protagonist, problem, tone, genre—in two sentences.

Another of my favorites comes from Melissa Michaels’ novel Cold Iron.

My first sight of Jorandel did nothing to improve my opinion of the kind of elves who abandon Faerie for show business.

This is not only a wonderful first line, but by the end of the first paragraph, all the rest of it is there:

He was drunk or stoned, I never knew which, and vomiting in the gutter outside one of the most exclusive hotels in San Francisco. Passersby pretended he was invisible. I wished he were. Or I were. I’d been on the job for less than an hour, and already I knew it had been a mistake to take it.

I recently met with a group of writers (SCBWI Sunday Schmooze) to compare good and bad novel openings. One writer had just dropped into the Schmooze for the first time and hadn’t brought any examples with him, but he had just purchased a memoir in the bookstore where we were meeting—without reading the beginning. We thought it would be fun to hit the first line cold and see whether the memoir author had done a good job or blown it. So he opened XXX by YYY and read; I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I was a bit overdressed for the evening ahead, when I saw my mother rooting through a dumpster. XXX got an ovation that made the rest of the people in the bookstore stare at us.

Brilliant, beautiful, fantastic beginnings…and how often do I pull this off myself? Hardly ever. But even if you can’t pull off incredible brilliance, you can create a pretty good beginning. What constitutes, if not a mansion, at least comfortable and appealing home for your beachfront?

From my two most recently published books:

“It won’t work,” said Hama, looking down the road that ran through the rolling foothills. “It’s too complicated.”
—Forging the Sword

This isn’t great, but it’s not horrible either. The statement that whatever “it” is won’t work implies problems to come, more conflict arrives in the next paragraph, when Kavi tells Hama that the ambush they’ve set up will too work. And before the bottom of the first half-page, Soraya has threatened to kill Kavi if the ambush fails.

“If this is treason,” said Weasel, “should you be writing it down?” He tucked the quill back in the inkwell and rubbed his cramping hand.
—Shield of Stars

Again, not great, but not horrible. Treason is a pretty decent hook, the next paragraph sets the scene, and then—again before the bottom of the first half-page—Justice Holis replies, “Ah, but you’ll note that I’m not writing it. Putting treason on paper in your own hand would be both dangerous and foolish. That’s why you’re doing it for me.”

Are you entertained? I hope so. But I’m sure you’ve also noticed that neither of these beginnings are nearly as good as the three that preceded them.

And finally my personal best ever opening paragraph, from my novel The Last Knight, which by sheer chance (yeah right) happens to be coming out this fall:

To say it was a dark and stormy night would be a gross understatement. It was colder than a witch’s kiss, wetter than a spring swamp, and blacker than a tax collector’s heart. A sane man would have been curled up in front of a fire with a cup of mulled wine and a good boo—, ah a willing wench. But not me. I was out in it. I’m squire to a hero.

Almost there—tone, protagonist (humor!) and a hint of the overall problem. Before the bottom of the first half page you’ve found that the immediate problem is that he and his heroic employer are out in this rain to rescue a damsel from a tower, which gives you place and genre. Though it isn’t till the end of chapter one that you reach the main story problem, when our heroes are arrested for having (unwittingly) freed an accused murderess from prison.

But if you can’t do it all in the first paragraph—and I clearly can’t—I think single thing that it’s most important to get right in your beginning is tone. Surprising, isn’t it? But if you pin them down, most agents and editors will tell you that what they’re really looking for in a new novel manuscript is a fresh, distinctive voice. And if you look at the three excellent beginnings, you’ll notice that there’s a distincitive, and very appealing voice talking to you in every one of them.

OK, you’ve now seen examples of three brilliant beginnings. (Not by me, alas.) Three OK beginnings. And now I want to demonstrate some things not to do. These are the beginnings that actually belong in the doghouse.

The most common error, I think is to start by setting the scene. Sometimes, if your command of language is really good, and you’re writing an adult book, and especially if it’s a literary novel, not genre, you might be able to get away with a few paragraphs of lyrical evocative description. Maybe. But many beginning writers set the scene in excruciating detail, for several pages, before they get down to mundane things like character and conflict. 98% of the time, your reader doesn’t give a damn if autumn leaves are wafting along on the crisp fall breeze. And the part of scene setting that’s such a common bad-opening mistake that it’s almost a cliché in its own right, is to begin with the weather report. To say it was a dark and stormy night would be a gross understatement. Ah. Hmm. Well, there are exceptions to everything—and one of them is spoof. And you do need to set the scene somewhere in the first few paragraphs, so your characters aren’t acting against a blue screen backdrop. But make your descriptions evocative, fresh, and brief. Particularly in the first few pages.

In fact, you don’t have to introduce the main story problem in the first few paragraphs, though it’s good if you can. But your main character does need to encounter the main story problem by the end of the first chapter at the latest. The story doesn’t start until the main story problem is introduced. And it ends when the main story problem is resolved. Having more than one chapter before your story starts is usually a bad idea—and so is having more than one brief chapter after the climax is over. The most common reason for people to have one (or more) chapters before the story problem is introduced is…

Beginning with backstory.

Mary Sue lived in a house in the Ozarks, with five brothers, twenty chickens and a pig. She’d always regretted that looking after her brothers meant that she couldn’t finish high school.

As compared to,

“Bobby, I swear if you don’t get that pig out of the TV room this minute I’m going back to high school!”

Beginning writers tend to think that the reader has to know everything about their characters and the situation up front, but the truth is that until we’ve become invested in Mary Sue by seeing her in action, we don’t care about her history.

Another other common mistake that occurs when writers are told not to put backstory in the first chapter, is that they put Mary Sue in one interesting scene, and then do a big dump of back story in chapter two. In general, the best way to handle back story is to chop it into very small bits and sprinkle it through chapters three through about seven, refusing to tell readers anything about the character’s history if they don’t need to know it. And a lot of the time, they don’t. (This is probably the right place to confess that the whole second chapter of Last Knight is a flashback to how the two main characters got together. Ahem. Well, sometimes it works.)

The opposite of the backstory error, though not so common, is too start in the middle of too much action. Shots whizzed past my head. I rolled out from behind the dumpster and fired half a clip into my would-be assassin. The thing that’s wrong with this is the same thing that’s wrong with giving us the backstory too soon—we’re not invested in this character enough to care whether he gets shot or not.

Dialog is frequently a good beginning, if it displays conflict and character right up front. Dialog without conflict is as bad as eternally setting the scene: “Mom, can I go to the beach with my best friend Judy?” “Sure honey, just be back by dark.” “That’s no problem, Judy’s dad is driving us.” “Oh, well that’s fine then. Have a great time.” Yes, characters have been introduced, but…are we yawning yet? Conflict, or at least the intimation of conflict to come, is what fires every part of a good novel, and particularly beginnings.

Starting in the viewpoint of someone besides the main character in order to introduce them, is another error. I’ve heard a number of authors, at writers’ conference readings, explain to the listening editor or agent, “Well, no you’ll never see X again. I’m just using her to introduce Y, who the story is really about.” When you start a novel in one character’s viewpoint, you’re making a promise to the reader that this is either the main character, or in multiple viewpoint novels one of the primary characters. If you break this promise, the reader will stop trusting you.

Introducing too many characters in the first few pages is yet another common problem.

“Bobby, I swear if you don’t get that pig out of the TV room this minute I’m going back to high school!”

“Ah, come on Mary Sue, don’t be like that,” Bobby whined.

“Yeah,” Charlie chimed in. “Who’s going to clean the cheeto crumbs off the floor if we kick Porky out.”

“That’s right,” said Aelfred. “Porky has as much right to be in this room as you do. Animals have rights too.”

“Who’d want to go back to dumb old school.” Aelfred’s girlfriend Charmaine yawned.

Porky, thank goodness, said nothing.

A general rule of thumb is that two names on the first page is plenty, and more than three (Hama, Kavi, Soraya…) is too much.

I wrote all the examples of bad beginnings myself—but if you go to writers’ conferences where a group of people read before an editor or agent, sooner or you’ll see all these problems, and probably others as well. And not all published novels have brilliant openings. Looking for examples to take to the aforementioned schmooze, I was amazed how many really good books, by favorite authors, have merely OK opening paragraphs.

On the other hand, very few agents or editors will even read beyond the first page, first five pages tops, if your opening doesn’t grab their attention. Better yet, blow them away. So pay lots of attention to what you’re building on your beachfront—and keep the doghouse in the back where it belongs.

Fall 2007

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