Published: August 12, 2005
|Context, character and conflict -- I call them "the three c's." They are the essential fictional elements a writer should braid together on the first page of a story or novel in the quest for a sparkling beginning. If you save all the good stuff for page fifty, but you haven't held your readers' attention, no one will ever find out what a great writer you are because they will have already put your work aside.|
Your very first readers will be the most jaded: the agents and editors whose help you need to reach the reading public. Generally, agents and editors are so overwhelmed by submissions that they'll skim just a few pages to find out whether the work is competent and, better yet, magical; more accurately, they'll have their young assistants make that evaluation. On a practical level, you must engage your first readers or your work will have a form-letter rejection slapped on it and sent back to you. On a creative level, you don't want your story or novel to begin so slowly or clumsily that it's plain boring. Writing a good first page is a discipline, but it isn't as hard as you might think.
Begin by delving right into the story's action. One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is over-writing their beginnings. There is an inclination to wax poetic about weather or to delve into the thoughts of a character we don't yet know or care about. If you need to do some pre-writing to get yourself started, go for it, but then set it aside in your personal file of "Gems to Save for Later." Now, choose an opening moment that will ignite the story in your reader's mind. Something should be in the process of happening on that first page; it doesn't need to be momentous, but it should engage your reader's curiosity.
Context. Quickly give us a sense of where we are -- in an urban penthouse; on a farm in summertime; in a space ship; on an ocean liner; looking at a storefront on Madison Avenue; in an office. Identifying the setting will orient your reader; otherwise, he may have to re-read just to put the story into accurate perspective. The moment he has to regroup, you have pretty much burst the bubble of his suspended disbelief and possibly lost his attention all together. If you know your character -- let's call her Marcella -- is going to pour herself a cup of coffee, then make sure to place her in a setting where there would be a coffee pot. But don't just inform us of the context, or setting; integrate it into the action. Action doesn't need to be dramatic, just the sense that something is happening or about to happen. To echo an old chestnut: action is story, and story is character.
Character. Your character experiences your story's context; it informs her, and she informs it. If it's cold, she puts on a sweater and turns up the heat; if it's hot, she strips to her underwear and opens all the windows (or turns on the air conditioning). If she's in an office and her feet ache, she still keeps on those toe-pinching high heels; or maybe she stows a pair of fluffy pink slippers under her desk. In the particular, idiosyncratic world of her mind, she experiences her world uniquely. Context and character fuse and play off each other. It's all in the details, so choose carefully. Think about what you want to show readers as you introduce them to your fictional world. Marcella's in her office, she's pouring herself a cup of coffee, her feet are killing her and she's thinking about those fluffy slippers under her desk. Good, but nothing's really happening and you're halfway down your first page. Someone once said that every character must want something, even if it's a glass of water. Know what your character wants, and set her quest, however minor, into motion.
Conflict. What's at stake? What does Marcella care about? What does she want? Maybe she's been up all night with a dying pet and has come into the office to meet an important deadline. She pours a cup of coffee and can smell that it's burned before it scalds her tongue. She screams at her coffee-brewing secretary, who quits. If we can smell the burned coffee and feel the scald on her tongue, then we'll also feel her exhaustion and frustration. Despite her loss of control, we're sympathetic, because her beloved pet is dying at home, alone, while she had to come into work. And now, without the help of her secretary, she'll be at the office hours longer than planned. The vet's office closes at six o'clock, but her boss has made it clear that she'll lose her job if she doesn't meet her deadline . . . you get the idea. By now, you're at the bottom of page one and your readers are going to feel compelled to turn the page to find out what happens.
By quickly establishing context, character and conflict, you have set in motion some of the essential fictional elements that will resonate throughout your story or novel. Marcella's off on her quest, you have conquered another first page and won the hearts and minds of readers who will probably go easier on you next time. But the trick is this: in the future, you won't need their mercy, because through practice and discipline you have come that much closer to mastery of your craft.
Copyright © 2005 Kate Pepper
--Posted Aug. 12, 2005
Author of Seven Minutes to Noon
Kate Pepper is the pseudonym of author Katia Spiegelman, who teaches fiction writing at New School University; "First Pages" is based on an original exercise she developed for her workshop. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two children. Her most recent Kate Pepper thriller is Seven Minutes to Noon (Signet; May 2005; $6.99US/$9.99CAN; 0-451-21579-6)
For more information, please visit the author's Web site at www.katepepper.com.