Monday, 2 September 2013

How To Write: The Opening Pages

Get the opening pages right, and you'll not only hook your reader, you'll hook the story itself.

Elizabeth Moss has published sixteen novels under a variety of names, plus short stories and novellas, in the fields of both commercial and literary fiction.

I'm going to assume in these posts on writing that you are either a new and unpublished writer, or self-published and looking to get into traditional publishing. So do bear that in mind if those do not apply to you.


Most of the 'how to write' books I've read insist on a BANG or WOW opening. Something in the first few lines or on the first page which will capture a reader's attention and keep them turning the pages. And it's true that your first reader - apart from friends/family - is generally an agent or publisher, and since getting their attention is rather important for a new writer, getting the opening pages right does seem desperately important.

Luigi Bonomi of LBA, Literary Agent of the Year 2010, wrote in an online article on 'How To Get An Agent' that the first page has to be 'brilliant' and 'pull them in'. Due to the sheer volume of submissions handled by most literary agencies - around 5000 manuscripts a year is not unusual - Bonomi reckons 'you have on average around 60 seconds to impress an agent with your covering letter and first page.' Which sounds harsh, but is probably about right.

Professionals know what they're looking for in a submission, and deal with so many, it only takes a once-over with an experienced eye to make that initial yes or no. And you need to avoid the word no for as long as possible.

So try to ensure your opening is pacy, exciting in some way, and emotionally resonant. However, starting with a BANG or a WOW may not suit your story. Or your narrative style. But that does not mean you cannot hook a reader's interest in other ways.

You may have heard about 'voice' and how important it is to get one as a writer. And been confused, no doubt. Voice is something we use when speaking. How can it transfer to narrative technique?

The writer's 'voice' is the one we use when speaking, yes, but also the one we use in our own heads, when thinking. It's our dream voice. Our private narrative on life. I don't necessarily mean accent or dialect when I say 'voice', I mean intonation, significant word selection, sentence structure - all things we don't tend to consider when speaking, but which come naturally to us.

We don't think how our feet and legs move when taking a few steps, it happens automatically. In the same way, the writer's voice is the one we use automatically, without really thinking; the natural voice inside ourselves that has been developing since early childhood. All sorts of things may be muddled up in it. Nursery rhymes, sounds we love, structures we inherited from our parents or carers, snatches of poetry, songs, books, films, and the effects of external pressure - speaking a certain way because it is 'expected'.

The writer's voice is about rhythm and selection. The way we choose to balance sentences, and the words we choose to balance them. See what I did there? That's my voice. But it's also a voice I can put on, like an overcoat. Because the writer's voice is not fixed or singular. It's fluid and multiple. The core of it, the essence of the voice, remains the same. But it can be manipulated or tweaked to achieve different effects, depending on what kind of writing is required.

The opening page is like an introduction at a party: it's about making a great first impression!

Which leads me to character. Because character is what forms the structure of the writer's voice in each new story. The narrative voice in a novel may not be - in fact, almost never is - the same as the writer's internal narrative voice. But it is based on it because it has to be. Write what you know, experts tell us. And what we know best is ourselves.

So each narrative character is a little bit like you. Even the serial killers.

A narrative character is the one who shapes the story for the reader at that moment. To let that character 'speak' to the reader, you need to enter into their narrative voice, using your own like a rope wrapped securely about your waist. They may talk funny. They may not fully understand themselves or their predicament. The reader may feel superior, having to read between their lines to get the gist of what's going on. That's dramatic irony. Or they may know more than the reader. They may withhold information. Trick the reader, shock them, make them pull up in surprise ... and re-read.

Voice and character are inextricable.
So sketching out character in your opening pages is also the act of setting out your narrative voice. Voice and character are inextricable in most fiction. They are the front and back legs of a pantomime horse. Look after the one, and the other will look after itself. Voice reveals character, and character defines voice.

You can start with dialogue. If you do, make it reveal character. That is, if the narrative character is speaking, give him or her only words to say that reveal character, not merely point to plot.

'There is a bomb in my knapsack,' suggests a cool character, someone hard, determined, unruffled by the threat of imminent death, probably very dangerous.

'For god's sake, help me. There's a b ... bomb in my knapsack!' gives the opposite impression. You don't always need to add a qualifier: she said coolly, softly, loudly, in a terrified voice.

Or you can start with narrative prose. Only remember that someone else is behind it. Not you. If it's fiction, it's never you. He looked down from the hilltop. The town under enemy fire was lit by a thousand points of light, like a Fourth of July firework display is a very different opening to He stared down from the hilltop. The town was under enemy fire, houses ablaze, people screaming as they ran for cover.

Each of these opening lines should arouse a different emotional response in us as readers. It should also make us wonder about the narrator, and their emotional response to the situation.

Writing character revolves around such emotional responses to action and situation, or a lack of them. We as readers are emotional creatures. We latch onto emotion in the narrative voice and think, yes, I know how that feels, or would feel the same if that happened to me. We begin to trust and open up to what is being narrated. We begin to care.

We ask silent questions as we read. What will happen to this person with the bomb in their knapsack, or the innocent people in their immediate vicinity? Who put the bomb in the knapsack? What is their motive in blowing everyone up? Why did they use the word 'knapsack' instead of the more usual 'backpack' or 'rucksack'? Where is this town, why is it under fire, and how many of these people are going to die?

As soon as we have no further questions, or none which engage us emotionally, we stop reading. As soon as a character ceases to arouse an emotional response in us, we stop reading. Your job as writer is to prevent us from doing that. To keep us reading, keep us turning the pages. Keep us caring about your story.

Believe in your story.
Emotional response is what we need to evoke when we write. That's what keeps the pages turning. We also learn to manipulate emotional response when we create a slippery or untrustworthy narrator, a narrative voice that cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

That too is part of the art of writing: being a confidence trickster, getting the reader to believe in what you have written, to trust your narrative character implicitly. If they do and then later discover the narrator was lying, are you prepared for the backlash? The book thrown across the room, the manuscript put through the shredder, the pithy email rejection?

Don't use false mystery or untrustworthy narration to hook a reader unless you have a plan to back it up, and a damn good plan too, or you will lose their trust. Not just in this story, but in all your stories.

Fiction is by definition untrue - even when based on a true story. Yet a good writer makes the reader forget that and 'believe' in their characters and their story from the very first line.

... Continued in Part Two: The Opening Pages of Your Novel: Part Two

Elizabeth Moss's latest novel is WOLF BRIDE (Hodder & Stoughton): published 29 August 2013, available NOW in both the US and the UK, and other countries, in ebook form.

Paperback due November.

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