Act First, Explain Later
by Jodie Renner, freelance editor, craft-of-fiction writer, and writing coach/speaker
Gone are the days when fiction readers were willing to read pages of description and lead-up before being introduced to the characters and the plot. Readers, agents, and publishers today don’t have the time or patience to wade through pages of backstory and description, so you need to grab their interest right from the first sentence and first paragraph of your story.
As James Scott Bell says in Revision and Self-Editing, about the opening paragraphs, “Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.”
Here are twelve dos and don’ts for making the first page of your novel more compelling:
1. Don’t begin with a long description of the setting or with background information on your main character.
~ Do begin with dialogue and action; then add any necessary backstory or description in small doses, on a need-to-know basis as you progress through the story.
2. Don’t start with a character other than your protagonist.
~ Do introduce your protagonist right in the first paragraph.
3. Don’t start with a description of past events.
~ Do jump right in with what the main character is involved in right now, and introduce some tension or conflict as soon as possible.
4. Don’t start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s.
~ Do start telling the story from your protagonist’s point of view. It’s best to stay in the protagonist’s point of view for the whole first chapter, or most of it, and don’t change the point of view within a scene.
5. Don’t delay letting your readers get to know your protagonist, or present her in a static, neutral (boring) situation.
~ Do develop your main character quickly by putting her in a bit of hot water and showing how she reacts to the situation, so readers can empathize and “bond” with her, and start caring enough about her to keep reading.
6. Don’t start with your character all alone, reflecting on his life.
~ Do have more than one character (two is best) interacting, with action and dialogue. That’s more compelling than reading the thoughts of one person.
7. Don’t start with your protagonist planning a trip, or traveling somewhere, in other words, as a lead-up to an important scene.
~ Do start in media res — jump right into the middle of the action. Present her in a meaningful scene.
8. Don’t introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages.
~ Do limit the number of characters you introduce in the first few pages to three or less.
9. Don’t leave the reader wondering what the characters look like.
~ Do provide a description of each character as they’re introduced, so the readers can form a picture of him or her in their minds.
10. Don’t have the main character looking in the mirror as a device for describing him/her. This had been overdone.
~ Do work in the description by relating it to his or her actions or interactions with others.
11. Don’t wait too long to introduce the hero (love interest), in a romance or romantic suspense. ~ Do introduce the hero by the end of chapter one.
12. Don’t spend too long leading up to the main conflict or problem the protagonist faces.
~ Do introduce the main conflict (or at least some significant tension) within the first chapter.
Remember, you can always start your story wherever you want in the draft stage, if it’ll make you feel better. Then in the editing stage, you can go back and cut out the first several paragraphs or pages or even most of the first chapter, so that, in your final draft, your actual story starts after all that lead-up (some of which may appear later, in snippets here and there).
In conclusion, here’s a little rule for writing compelling fiction, coined by James Scott Bell:
Act first, explain later.
Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.