This post–minus the new intro and a few tweaks–was originally published on The Blood-Red Pencil on my birthday, September 13, 2010. Almost five years later, it’s point–GRAB THE READER’S ATTENTION QUICKLY–is still important to writers.
We are in the midst of the NOW era. We want everything now, and for the most part we get it. That NOW factor can also be found in today’s readers and their need to be caught up in a book as soon as they start to read. Not too long ago, the Internet (and many books) talked about how important it was for writers to make sure they had a first chapter that grabbed their readers. The NOW factor, over the years, has shortened that to the first page… and some to the first LINE of a story. People’s attention is thisshort, and as such, writers have to be quick out the gate and make sure readers stay reading their stories to the end.
So, now you know (and probably already knew) that the first page of your story is important. You might be asking now, OK, so how do I go about doing this?
A big chunk of it comes from your literary brilliance, obviously. However, another chunk–and I think this often trumps the former chunk–comes from where you decide to begin your story. Many writers might decide to start their stories from the beginning of everything and follow a logical, chronological flow. Now, that’s fine if that’s the best way to tell your story, but if you’re looking for a way to begin your story that will create the biggest punch for the reader at the start of your book, then you do yourself (and your book) a disservice if you do not consider all that goes on in your story and select a scene that creates that punch and pulls the reader into your story.
What this mean is you will probably have to play with the movement of your story, working on flashbacks and flashforwards, etc., so that you can create a first page, a beginning that is strong enough to pull your readers in and at the same time, not feel “added on” just for the sake of intriguing your readers…only to deflate them in the rest of the story. It’s hard work, but it can be done. It is done, every day; there are a lot of books out there to show you that this is true. Take some time to peruse some of your favorite novels, to check out new novels. How do you like the first page? The first couple of pages? The first chapter? Where are the authors starting their stories, and how might those “starts” add to the strength of the story overall? It might even be interesting to ask how might the story have been different if the story started in another way.
Here’s a great example of all the STUFF I’ve said above…
love, love, love this book!
Bernice McFadden is my favorite author, and I lovingly stalk her on Facebook because she is just that awesome. Her novel Sugar has been on my top ten fave books since it was released over 15 years ago. I was hooked on her book after the first line, but the first page is even more stellar. Read it below.
JUDE was dead.
On a day when the air held a promise of summer and people laughed aloud, putting aside for a brief moment their condition, color and where they ranked among humanity, Jude, dangling on the end of childhood and reaching out toward womanhood, should have been giggling with others her age among the sassafras or dipping her bare feet in Hodges Lake and shivering against the winter chill it still clutched. Instead she was dead.
She’d been taken down by the sharp blade of jealousy, and her womanhood-so soft, pink and virginal-was sliced from her and laid to rest on the side of the road near her body. Her pigtails, thick dark ropes of hair, lay splayed out above her head, mixed in with the pine needles and road dust. Her dress, white and yellow, her favorite colors, was pulled up to her neck, revealing the small bosom that had developed over the winter.
The murder had white man written all over it. (That was only a half truth.) But no one would say it above a whisper. It was 1940. It was Bigelow, Arkansas. It was a black child. Need any more be said?
No one cared except the people who carried the same skin color. No one cared except the parents who had nursed her, stayed up all night soothing and rocking her when she was colicky. Applauded her when she took her first steps and cried when the babbling, gurgling sounds that came from her sweet mouth finally formed the words Mamma and then later, Papa.
The first sentence makes the readers asks a few questions: Who is Jude? Why did s/he die? How did s/he die? Did someone kill her/him? If you can get a reader to start thinking and wondering, you can get them to continue reading for a bit longer.
Each sentence after that first sentence layers itself upon that short, simple, “need to know more” sentence.
In just this one page, we are invited to partake in the time period of the story, the type of people who live within the pages, the setting, the layer of pain that lingers over the black folks in the story, etc. It opens the story for the reader much like an establishing shot at the beginning of a movie can encapsulate place, time, and set an atmospheric air about a story before coming in close to the characters and allowing us to take part in their lives. What’s interesting is the very first character we meet in Sugar is already dead, yet she lives like a ghost throughout the entire story, floating through the lives of her parents and the people of the town. The majority of the book takes place 15 years after Jude’s death, so McFadden could have cut the beginning and started well after the death, detailing Jude’s death later in the story through exposition and flashback, but it would have changed the entire story in a drastic and (for me anyway) negative way.
You might be asking, OK, so did McFadden add the death at the beginning for shock value, just to draw readers in?
My honest opinion? No, I don’t believe it was McFadden’s intention to just provide shock value at the start of the story. If you read the novel, you see that the beginning is extraordinarily important to the entire story. As a reader of all McFadden’s works, and having conversed with her a few times, I can say that every part of her stories has a significant purpose to the life of the full story.
As you go about writing your own stories, and especially as you get to revising and editing, read and reread your first chapter, first page, first line. The goal is not to set up the ENTIRE book in the first page–like we probably won’t know the main conflict and what pushes the main character into her obstacle-laden journey in sentence one of your story, but you definitely want to start laying the foundation that your story will be built upon.
Got a writing question? Shoot me an e-mail, and I’ll see if I can answer it for you!