MYC: The Importance of First and Last Pages

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on revision with Writing “Other” with Sensitivity. This week, we’re diving into the importance of first and last pages.

My introduction to writing first pages came early in my career at an SCBWI conference. I listened as a moderator read anonymously submitted first pages of manuscripts and a panel of agents and editors generously gave feedback. Some they loved, some were “meh,” and some they hated. But in all of them, they looked for the same criteria:

An interesting and unique voice, a grounding in place and time, an introduction to the main character, enough plot to pique interest, an idea of the main character’s internal and/or external conflicts, and his or her stakes. And all of that in a few hundred words. Oh the stress!

So why is the first page, and the next few, so important? They determine whether someone will read further. Are those words compelling enough for a person to give up all other activities to spend time with your characters?

Don’t worry, it’s not as daunting as it seems. Let’s look at two main aspects of first pages.

Where should you begin? Think about what people thrive on. Conflict. Tension. And since the goal is to have readers turn the pages, it’s crucial to get right to what is most important. Ask yourself what the plot is, the central idea. Is it about a person, a place, or an event such as going to a new school or hurricane?  Note: conflict and tension does not always mean action.

How can you capture all, or most, of the aspects noted above? The easiest way (and I laugh hysterically as I type that) is through word choice. Word choices can make a voice unique, can provide a brief description of the character, and can give readers a hint at the plot and conflict.

Check out this example from the first page of Kristi Wientge’s recently released KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE:

Dadima used to say I’d be as strong as a lion if I drank milk twice a day. She never mentioned I’d get as hairy as one too. There should have been a disclaimer-bold letters and a voice-over with a list of side effects scrolling along the side of my grandma’s face whenever she handed me a cup of hot milk.

From this paragraph (not even the whole first page) we can tell her family’s culture (character) because she refers to her grandmother as Dadima. We also get a peek at a potential problem (plot) for the main character: unwanted hair. And unwanted hair is typically an issue (conflict) for girls. The next paragraph puts us in the kitchen (setting) with her father, gives us her name (character), and shows she has some spunk when she says I had the urge to accidentally spill curry down the front of the apron. (character and voice)

Sometimes the key to writing successful beginnings is knowing what to avoid. Here are common problems agents and editors have noticed:

Overused openings – examples are waking up and first day of school.

Over thinking – don’t think, just do.

Too much detail or set up – this can be a problem in stories with heavy world building. Avoid info dump and lingering on setting.

Too much backstory – focus on the present and get to the event. It is okay to withhold information at the beginning.

Too many characters – readers need know the main character first.

Endings have a lot of work to do in tying up all the threads of the plot (and subplots) and resolving any lingering issues for the characters. This can be especially tricky in a serial novel, when you must leave some things open-ended but, at the same time, have to wrap things up—or risk incurring your readers’ wrath. But in all cases, even in a serial, one of the main thematic purposes of an ending is to show how the protagonist has changed.

I like to think about the ending as mirroring the beginning—but with a twist. The “twist” is the thing that shows the protagonist’s growth. In The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien opens with a description of Bilbo Baggins’ cozy hobbit-hole, detailing all its creature comforts—comforts Bilbo loves and doesn’t want to leave. But he does. After all his adventures, Bilbo returns home only to discover he is “presumed dead,” his hobbit-hole is for sale, and its contents are being auctioned off. This should have been his worst nightmare. But Bilbo doesn’t mind, because he’s changed. In both scenes, Bilbo is at home in Hobbiton, but the ending image reverses the beginning’s, and through that twist, and Bilbo’s reaction to it, Tolkien shows us that Bilbo is no longer the comfort-craving hobbit he was in the beginning. He has grown.

Of course, the mirroring + twist doesn’t have to be as literal as it is in The Hobbit, but it’s helpful to think of the two scenes as having a special relationship to one another in which the ending complicates, reworks, or revisits some aspect of the beginning as a way of showing the protagonist’s growth.

When I start a new project, one the first things I do is imagine the opening and closing scenes and think about how, visually and metaphorically, they’ll show the protagonist’s growth. Those two images are my touchstones, my character’s arc in miniature; the rest I figure out as I start to outline. Without those two bookends, I don’t think I’d feel confident with where I was going.

Bonus Tip: I first read about this idea in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Check it out for more on story structure.

 

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. And wigs. She is represented by Molly Ker Hawn at The Bent Agency. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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MYC: Pacing and Tension: The Heartbeat of Your Story

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the importance of letting your manuscript sit. This week, we’re talking about pacing and tension.

Pacing and tension are the drivers that have us flipping through the pages from the first chapter through to the last one.

Pacing is the speed at which our story unfolds, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, allowing us to catch our breath and regroup. Ironically, in a fast action scene, we zoom in and slow down the moment, paying more attention to detail with shorter snappier sentences. In between our action scenes we have reaction and anticipation scenes, and when events slow down, we can zoom out and occasionally tell, instead of show, the passing of time or events.

We are always told to cut out the boring bits, which is true. We don’t need to hear routine details, so it’s important to show the progression of time. Here’s a post from writershelpingwriters.net that shows you some examples of how to show the progression of time from one chapter to the next.

Tension is the anticipation before the action. It’s the suspense of now knowing what’s going to happen. It’s expecting and hoping that something will happen. It occurs before the action. The more we care about the character, the more tension we, the reader, will feel.

Tension relies on the author making it difficult for your character to get what they want or need. Conflict is tension. So your character should have both an external conflict and internal conflict.  If your main character is perfectly content and serene and doesn’t want or need anything, your pacing will feel slow. We turn the page to find out if your character will get what they want.

Outlining your story helps you pace your novel, whether you choose Martha Aldersen’s The Plot Whisper or K M Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel or Larry Brooks Story Engineering. Whichever story structure you choose, it will help you pace your story and build the tension.

Here are some more insights on pacing and tension from other writers and editors:

“Sometimes you’re creeping or walking and enjoying the view and other times running for your life.”—Stephen King

“Pace means change.  If plot circumstances don’t change, something must.  In practical terms that means complications, twists, turns and surprises that aren’t visible but are nevertheless real, changes that happen inside.  These are the steps in an arc.”—Donald Mass (Read his excellent post on the four kinds of pacing here on Writer Unboxed.)

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”― Alfred Hitchcock

“…even though you know what’s going to happen next, your readers shouldn’t. They need to have a sense of excitement and uncertainty as the plot and pacing unfolds because this is where magic lies.”–J.K. Rowling

“Pacing is the manipulation of momentum and time in a piece of writing and how the characters and reader experience it. April Bradley.” Check out more the entire post here.

Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at writing emotion!

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She grew up in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.