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January 5, 2012

Pitch Prep: What Makes a Great First Page?

Series of outdoor entrances, pulling the eye deeper into a garden

It was a dark and stormy blog post.  *snicker*

We’re continuing to prepare for the January 10-16th Pitch Your Shorts pitch session by tackling the issue of story openings.  (Check out Tuesday’s post for everything there is to know about pitching.)

While the purpose of a pitch is to get a request, the purpose of a story’s first page is to make people want to keep reading.  Whether the reader is an agent/editor looking at sample pages or a bookstore customer flipping open the cover, if they want to turn the page, we’ve succeeded.

Our number one goal with our first line, paragraph, and page is to pull readers along for the ride.  So for everything we write on that all-important first page, we have to ask ourselves, “Will this draw a reader in or push them away?”

What Pulls In a Reader?

Instead of looking at story openings as writers, we need to look at them from a reader’s perspective.  As a reader, the main question we have when we start a story is, will our time be well spent?  Will we be entertained or informed?

Let’s go through the standard advice for story openings and look at why those tips help pull in readers.

  • “Start the story at the right point, just before something happens in the main character’s life that forces a change or decision.”

At their essence, stories are about change.  Weather and settings don’t change much, which is why they’re too static for openings.  We need to see characters encountering a problem.

These changes or problems don’t have to be big or be the main issue that will carry the story forward.  Hints of impending issues or a gap between the expected and the reality tell us there’s something to look forward to, that there’s a story there.

  • “Start with action or conflict.”

This advice doesn’t refer to the Michael Bay approach to action with car chases and explosions.  In fact, the conflict doesn’t even have to involve a character.  The conflict can be within us, between what we expect and the words on the page.

Think of the opening line to George Orwell’s 1984“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  Our “Wait…What?” reaction to that sentence grabs us even though no punch was thrown.  Again, there’s a promise of more to come.

  • “Be surprising or mysterious.”

We keep reading to find out what will happen next and to learn the answers to our questions.  Every time a story answers a question, a new one should be posed.

Opening with backstory answers our questions too quickly.  We need to have just enough information to avoid confusion and understand we have a gap in our knowledge.  Human nature wants to fill that gap—and keep reading.

  • “Make readers care about characters and events.”

We care more about our friends’ problems than those of strangers.  Characters who are relatable make us more curious to find out how they deal with their problems and adapt to changes.

This doesn’t mean we want a physical description of characters or a dry backstory of their tale of woe.  We want to see characters in action, showing us who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, and what matters to them.

  • “Have a strong voice.”

Sometimes an opening that breaks every rule can succeed if the voice is strong enough to pull us along.  We all know those types in real life: a person with amazing charisma or a great personality.

Those people don’t lack for friends because they automatically seem interesting.  The same thing applies to characters.  We want to get to know them.

Curiosity drives a reader to turn the page.  Readers don’t want to see ordinary, and any exposition or explanation that can wait until later, should wait until later.

(Other common problems, like clichés, overwriting, and sloppy craft, make readers suspect the author lacks the skill to fulfill the story’s promises.  The edittorrent blog has a list of “marks of the amateur,” craft mistakes that make a manuscript look unprofessional.)

How to Prepare for the Pitch Your Shorts Pitch Session

My post here on January 10th will open the week-long pitch session with the Entangled Publishing editors.  We’ll be leaving a two-sentence pitch and the first 100 words of our stories in the comments of that post.

(To be clear, that means the first 100-ish words.  You’re allowed to finish slightly before or after 100 words to end on a complete sentence.  *smile*)

100 words isn’t much.  It’s a given the editors will be looking for proof that we have strong writing skills.  But beyond that, we have to make them curious about our characters, their situation, their problems, and their world within those few words.  It can be done.

Here are the first 52 words of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.

The first line breaks a “rule” (Don’t have a character just waking up!), but it contrasts what the point-of-view character expected (someone in bed next to her) and what she discovered (an empty bed).  That hint of a problem pulls us to the next line, where the bedding description gives us clues about this family’s situation (someone to care about).  By the end of the first paragraph, we know something bad is about to happen.

A fantastic guest post by Natalie C. Parker at the Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing blog examines the anatomy of a good hook.  Like a hook, a story’s first line has to be sharp (“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.“), within a few lines, a barb should tug us forward (“She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.“), and then we need a sentence connecting that opening to a story question (“This is the day of the reaping.“)

Stina Lindenblatt analyzed almost 70 story openings (a project that appeals to my perfectionist nature) to see which ones made her want to read more.  Her results?

“The first two paragraphs that made me want to read more involved a combination of introspection and action.”

Introspection and action, like the opening to The Hunger Games.  (Yes, Katniss searching for her sister is “action.”  It indicates change, want, and a problem.)

Introspection makes us curious about the character, and action makes us curious about the situation, conflict, or problem.  That will keep readers reading.

Other Resources for Learning about Story Openings

Elizabeth S. Craig’s Writer’s Knowledge Base comes to the rescue again with the ability to search for posts about first pages.

James Scott Bell has a good list of “don’t”s.

Janice Hardy tells us how to fix various “don’t”s here and here (in this second one, she also analyzes the opening of her debut book to explain how and why she made her decisions for her first 250 words).

In a guest post, Janice Hardy explains the how and why of her first line.

What part of story openings do you struggle with?  First lines?  Starting in the right place?  Resisting the information dump?  Creating curiosity?  Finding the line between curiosity and confusion?  (*raises hand to that last one*)

(Feel free to list your first 100 words below to get feedback, and feel free to comment on others’ openings.  Comments on this post are not part of the pitch session.)

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51 Comments on "Pitch Prep: What Makes a Great First Page?"

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Ava Jae

I think for me, getting the first line right is the most difficult. I’m actually reading Hooked by Les Edgerton right now, which is all about novel openers, and his take was that the first line should hint at a problem and make the readers ask questions. I think it’s a pretty good way of looking at it.

Good luck with your pitch session! 🙂

Angela Quarles

Ah, this is so timely (as you know!) – I’m in the throes of trying to rework my first chapter. I think I struggle with trying to create something that hooks, but is also relevant to the story as a whole and that resonates.

Okay, taking a deep breath and posting the first 100 as revised from last night (already I see I’m missing some kind of action, which happens at word count 130):

A reenactment ball was the perfect setting for romance. Or not.

Isabelle stood in her oddly-shaped, but oh-so-accurate dress surrounded by women who’d sacrificed accuracy for sex appeal. She felt like a dorky kid again, showing up to dress-up day at school when everyone else had magically decided it was lame.

At least her co-worker Anna had also taken it seriously; her dress was also circa 1834. Better yet though, this being the first time she’d hung out with her, Isabelle discovered they shared a mutual obsession with guys in period clothes — specifically men in tight-fitting breeches — which had helped propel her through the early stages of the party.

Natalie C Parker

Great breakdown of the “rules.” (I only use quotation marks because that word makes me shudder and look around for a rule to break.) I especially like how you’ve pointed out that any one of these things done really well can sort of counteract the others.

And many thanks for the link! I love how you’ve applied the hook analogy to THE HUNGER GAMES. That made my morning. 🙂

Susan Sipal

Finding that line between curiosity and confusion is a tough one. I learned early on to avoid the backstory dump, but sometimes get feedback that I’ve left the reader confused. I think because I’m working with mysteries, and I know all I’m withholding, it’s sometimes hard to know when I’ve said enough but not too much.

Looking forward to next week! Thanks Jami. 🙂

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[…] in Writing Stuff This week we’re preparing for the Pitch Your Shorts pitch session coming here January 10th.  Even if you’re not pitching this time, stick around.  Today we have The Ultimate Guide to Pitch Writing.  (Thursday’s post will cover story openings.) […]

Murphy

Awesome breakdown, Jami! I love this. I hope to be able to pitch something next week. 🙂

Great advice you gave to Angela. Hi Angela *waves* This is a great opening, but I do agree with Jami. It could be amped up. Lemme see *taps index finger on front tooth* Hm. It might be just me, but I’m not a big fan of the oh-so-accurate followed by sacrificed accuracy. I’d probably change one of those and I’d also get rid of the word felt too.
*thinking*
What about time-period appropriate dress? Era-authentic dress? Then *sacrificed accuracy* can stay. As for felt? Well…Meh, ask Jami. I’m not good at the specifics. I’m better at examples.

In her oddly-shaped, but era-authentic dress, Isobel sweated surrounded by women who’d opted to sacrifice time-period accuracy for sex appeal. It was as if she were the dorky kid at school again. The one who showed up to dress-up day after all the cool kids had declared the tradition lame.

Gee, looking at this I might even change oddly-shaped because the garment isn’t oddly shaped if it’s accurate to the time period to my way of thinking. Maybe say, outrageous, stiffling or prim? To offset the mention of sex appeal.

Good luck with this. 🙂

Murphy

Angela Quarles

Thanks Murphy!! I did a *facepalm* on felt, can’t believe I let that slip by me… All great suggestions, thanks for jumping in! I hope you join the pitch next week, it should be informative!

Melinda Collins

Hi Jami!

I struggle with not only finding the right place to start, but avoiding the info dump and also finding the line between curiosity and confusion. It’s just so hard to either get carried away with information or pick a place to start that seems or feels right, but not as exactly right as another spot that you’d never thought of before.

Thank you so much for this post! It’s definitely going to help, but in the interest of getting a 2nd opinion, here’s my first 110 words: *nervously hits the paste button*

No matter what happens, don’t move. Let him come to you. Lily repeated the trainer’s advice in her head, over and over, as if repeating them would somehow magically still her body.

“C’mon, Agent Rathbrook,” Sturgeon called out. His voice echoed throughout the single story home like it was on steroids. “I’m the last person you need to worry about.”

She could hear Sturgeon’s partner snorting from the opposite direction. “Keep telling yourself that, Sturg, and one day it might be true,” he mumbled.

Lily smiled to herself at McMillan’s idiocy – just because he spoke in a lower voice than his partner didn’t mean she couldn’t pinpoint his exact location.

Aldrea Alien

Hope no one minds me joining in here. I won’t be participating in the pitch as well … nothing would be ready by the 10th. This one in particular is in for a major overhaul. Starting with its brand new prologue …

Moonlight glittered upon the frost-shrouded road. The clatter of horses echoed through the valley, counterpointed by the rumble of wheels. Steam rose from the beasts’ flanks, billowing out their muzzles in great ashen clouds.
Six men rode either side of the carriage, hands on sword hilts and eyes surveying the gloom beyond the swinging lantern light. The last stolid trees of a once wild forest lined the road’s edge. Scrub huddled in the shadows of these wooden giants. An occasional branch hung over the cobblestones in a half-hearted canopy.
Ștefan watched from one such bough, crouched on a piece wider than he was round.

Angela Quarles

Very atmospheric, good job! You also engage several senses here

Aldrea Alien

Thank you. ^_^

All I need to do is revamp the rest of the story to suit my less-sucky writing technique. I’m hoping for it to hit the 35k mark when I’m done. We’ll see.

Then it’s on to revamping its sequels. ^_^

Shonna Slayton

I collect first lines that strike my fancy. Here’s the first line of the book I’m currently reading: “Now, for those of you who know anything about blind children, you are aware that they make the very best thieves.” -Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier

Amy Ashley
Amy Ashley
I can’t enter the pitch contest as I’m working on a novel rather than a short. Never can seem to push out anything small! I liked Angela’s first sentence immensely, but got lost after that. You have wonderful voice there initially then it gets very distant and clunky. There’s more personality at the end of the paragraph with the reference to being a dorky kid though, and I think you are very close. Andrea, I thought your description was lovely, but it doesn’t tell the reader anything relevant. You might start with the sentence in that second paragraph, “Stefan watched…” because THAT is what the reader wants to know. Later one there is time for description, but in the beginning of the story the reader wants to know what the story is about, what is happening, what to care about. Unless the horses play a major role, they can probably be cut or moved without losing anything. Hope that helps. 🙂 Here is the first 100-ish of what I’m doing thus far. It’s a dystopian novel, and not complete. Still working on it! **************************************** My marriage disintegrates over a request for tea. From his point of view, I’m sure there’s more to it. There always is really, but it starts when I slide L-X my scribbled entreaty. His look of disgust. The slammed door. Me left sitting in the kitchenette with the sour-saltiness of breakfast leeching spittle from my gums like a vacuum. Dry and empty of all but a… Read more »
Buffy Armstrong

Jami,
Thanks for another great post! I’m looking foward to the pitch session next week. It should be fun!

Amy Ashley
Amy Ashley

Thanks!

Most dystopian is in a futuristic setting, and this one is in a very technology based society. L-X is her husband’s name. The book has a definite sci-fi flavor, so that’s probably not going to be a problem for my readers (just as Galbatorix or Voldemort etc. are fine for fantasy).

The main character is in an extremely bad situation–angry and confused, so the negativity is intentional. She goes through a transformative process in the course of the novel and rebels against the oppressive society she is caught within. This fits within the expectations of a dystopian novel.

I find it interesting you expect a women’s fiction story. It’s a good sign I’m headed in the right direction, because my character’s problems are both personal (an unwanted pregnancy and a failing marriage) and social (a restrictive government and job environment). Some of those are universal female struggles many of us can relate to.

Thanks for the compliments. I’ll think about toning down the breakfast sentence. It may be too much too soon. I’m still working on my first draft for this book, so I’m certain there will be a ton of changes!

Amy Ashley
Amy Ashley

Aldrea, thanks. I’ll take the sentence suggestion into consideration.

There isn’t any backstory at all, but the character is at a very bad point in her life. Beginning the story in the middle of the conflict and horror she lives was the right choice for the book. She’s not a happy person, but she does find resolution.

Stina Lindenblatt

Great post, Jami.

You’re right about the waking up rule. I heard one editor complain half the mss in her slush pile usually begin with someone waking up. Of course if you’re already a published author (as Suzanne was before The Hunger Games), you have more leeway when it comes to bending the rules. Plus she did have a great waking up scene.

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[…] Gold provides great advice that can be applied to both novels and short stories in Pitch Prep: What Makes a Great First Page.  Also, don’t miss the opportunity to join in her week-long pitch session that starts […]

Heather
Heather

Aw, shoot, I kinda wish I’d completed the YA book I started for NaNo in Nov so I could enter your contest! The first 200 words or so are up on Dianne Salerni’s In High Spirits blog (http://diannesalerni.blogspot.com/2012/01/first-impressions-untitled-ya-but-its.html)

I messed up w/the first sentence, but it’s a pretty easy fix. I’m just glad that people seemed to like it, so it’s kind of inspiration to finish the book someday. But I’m working on getting a historical fiction novel published…afraid I might box myself into adult lit only?

Murphy

Hi Jami,

Just checking the dashes thing 🙂

Murphy

Wow! IT WORKED LOL!

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[…] Monday, January 16, 2012, post the information about your story, your two-sentence pitch, and the first 100 words of your story in the comments of this post.  Like […]

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[…]  For one thing, they all need a strong opening. We talk about that being a “hook,” something that grabs the reader and pulls them forward to the next line, paragraph, and […]

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[…] I had to get the draft close and then fix in revisions. By the time I finished drafting the story, I knew the right tone and thematic messages to emphasize. Then feedback about character likability and reader interest helped tweak the […]

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[…] know our opening scene, we can start working on the first page. The first page isn’t just about deciding when to start that opening scene, but also about […]

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[…] at it from the other side, Jami Gold – another great teacher – has said, “Instead of looking at story openings as writers, we need to look at them from a reader’s […]

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