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.