On May 9, 2020, Kasie and Rex revisited the topic “beginnings” from last summer’s Short Story Basics series. Here are the show notes:
Theme for the day
- Page 1
- In Media Res
- Connecting to the rest of the work
So last week I complained about a terrible romance novel that had an inexplicable 500+ reviews with the average of 4.5 stars. Clearly paid for.
This week I have another gag-reflex romance novel problem to address. This time it’s the beginning of the story. In the first three pages of this book, the main character female arrives unexpected at her boyfriend’s house (always a bad idea), finds him cheating with her best friend (cliche) whom she overhears (also cliche) saying she’s pregnant (shocker), pulls a bat out of the guy’s closet (oh! That could be something!) and goes all Carrie Underwood (ugh) on his BMW (of course it’s a BMW).
The most disappointing thing about this cliched beginning? I really like this author. Read two of her books in a different series and they were good. But this? Just ouch.
All right, so we did This is the End a couple of weeks ago and said we’d work on the beginnings in a follow-up episode and that’s what we’re going to do today. What not to do, some of the greatest of all time, and how you know your beginning is lame (besides people telling you).
Full confession, I found a (much) earlier version of After December that began on the airplane when Brian travels home. That scene, I was told, was cliche. So I rewrote the beginning. I also knew that where we find Brian when he hears what happened to Tony would be important later. So the first scene, now, it’s just one and a half pages long and I love it. I worked like hell on that page and a half. I submitted for slushfest after slushfest, taking all the derisive, yawny, dickhead feedback from dozens of agents, publishers, and writers. Then I dug through everything I wanted to accomplish with the first page and rewrote it until I finally got it right.
Why is the first page so important? After a few pages don’t we sort of forget the first page? What about querying? Do agents read past a fair or poor first page or do they really give up after a mere 500 words (the rough number of what fits on the first page)?
Publisher Harper Collins has this to say about the reasons a first page matters:
- Show the book has something to offer right away
- Beware of information dumps or too much exposition early on
- Avoid the author-indulgences (keeping our favorite bits because of personal reasons)
Where to begin?
We often see movies start off with the character’s “normal” world — think Back to the Future and Michael J. Fox skateboarding through Hill Valley on his way to school — but even there, we see a disturbance in the normal world, Einstein’s bowl is overflowing because Doc Brown’s invention kept feeding the bowl, but the dog wasn’t around.
Steel Magnolias has a great small town scene with Darryl Hannah’s character walking the streets as a stranger, we know she’s new here but the town seems very friendly and welcoming.
Sixteen Candles starts with the paperboy setting off the home alarm, the family going through morning preparations for the day, “Jenny, Mike, Sarah, Sam! Everybody up!”
The primary question to answer in the first scene is, “Why today?” What makes today special? Why is this the right time or place to begin the story?
Does that question have to be answered on the first page?
We had an entire episode on beginning the story “in medias res” where we talked about starting in the middle of the action. YA novels love to do this. There’s a trick, though, where the author will start in the middle of some action that feels compelling, but then that action ends and the real story begins after 30 pages of exposition. Don’t trick the reader with a fake action scene.
Some good advice from that previous show from Mark O’Bannon whose blog provides these questions for examination:
- What is your story about? What is the purpose of your story?
- What is the main character’s goal? The desire forms the spine of the story.
- How does the opponent come in conflict with the hero’s goal? It is better to think of it as the hero and opponent competing for the same goal, rather than the opponent interfering with the character’s goal.
- Will the hero or the opponent win? Not all heroes succeed in their quest. The opponent sometimes wins.
- What is the hero’s main character flaw? The weakness will form the heart of the story.
- How can you demonstrate this weakness in the beginning of the story? Show how the character flaw is ruining the hero’s life.
- How does the opponent come in conflict with the hero’s character flaw? For instance, if the hero is ambitious, the opponent might appeal to the character’s pride.
- How will the hero overcome his character flaw and realize his need? The weakness is gradually revealed over the course of the story, and it becomes obvious to the hero near the end. This is called the self-revelation.
No surprise there’s a blog for How to Write the Perfect First Page:
- Skip the prologue (is it lazy? Does it give away the ending? We debated that)
- Create tension (established authors get away with slow starts, rookies don’t have that luxury)
- Reveal the core of your character (maybe even his tragic flaw?)
- Ground the reader (time period, location, outrageous Aliens or realistic non-magical space)
The most basic answer to “how do you do this?” is “Revision.”
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