The Second Draft, Revision: The First Page
Joe jumped behind the wheel of his car. He felt like he’d been swimming in his morning coffee, a triple-shot death wish, extra sugar. From the passenger seat, Susan watched him, thinking Joe looked beyond hyper. What was wrong with her best friend?
Yes, dear reader, I committed a writing faux pas in the above sentences. I shifted POV in the same paragraph—within two sentences, even!
I read something similar on the first page of a new mystery release, unfortunately.
What’s a writer to do when cautioned against narrative POV shifts but then sees the very thing in a book from a major publisher?
During the last months, I’ve been revising my mystery novel. I’ve documented the major plot points and proofread for mistakes such as POV shifts. I wrote the novel in first-person, so my protagonist’s knowledge of others’ thoughts and actions is limited.
I also looked at my first page with fresh eyes. To accomplish that, I took time away from my work and studied the first pages of both popular and new books. It was fascinating—and easy to do. I searched for recent releases on Amazon, then clicked on the sample to read the first pages of the books. (A better method is to head to a local bookstore, pick up a few mysteries and study their intros, then buy a couple, of course. I can’t wait to do that again.)
I also attended an online workshop where novel beginnings were discussed at length. It was a fantastic chance to learn from an expert about first pages. The opening paragraphs are the introduction to the reader. Sometimes that intro is a handshake. Sometimes it’s a punch to the gut. Sometimes it’s a disaster.
I discussed coffee shops as a setting in last month’s blog post. This month, I’m looking at first pages and what makes an outstanding first chapter. A few tips—commandments, if you will— include offering clarity, limited backstory, and sensory details.
Thy shall not confuse
Medical doctors swear by the Hippocratic oath, “First, do no harm.” Writers should take a similar oath for the first pages of novels, “First, do not confuse.”
That means no head-hopping. I write in first-person, so my protagonist can’t feel someone else’s depression. She may observe his droopy shoulders and lack of appetite, but she isn’t in his head, thinking his feelings. She doesn’t hear what he says to himself.
In third-person limited POV, the narrative “camera” focuses on the main character and stays there, mostly. There are other third-person perspectives, as listed here, but those are above my writer pay scale, frankly. My advice is to be concise and engaging while persuading the reader to turn the page. Jumping heads within paragraphs leads to confusion, which leads to placing a book back on the shelf or scrolling to the next one.
Other first-page problems that lead to reader confusion are an absence of grounding or lack of clues about time and space. Give the reader just enough information about where the characters are located, if it’s day or night, and important objects around them.
Thy shall not overwhelm with backstory
Think of backstory as a telephone call that interrupts the narrative. Your main character is sharing champagne and strawberries with a handsome sheriff. Then the phone rings, distracting her from savoring that luscious berry he placed on her tongue. She has to stop what she’s doing, answer the phone and ponder the call, and then return to the strawberry.
Do you want to interrupt your reader with that phone call, that pause in the action? It’s up to you as the writer-creator of the narrative. But think about what the reader needs—especially on the first page of a novel. Offer a glimpse, a peek at what’s to come, and few details about the past. There are three hundred more pages to discuss what affected the characters and events to come in the story. Deliver that info carefully.
Backstory is a necessary element to add depth to characters and show motivation. But it’s intrusive, and it drags on forward momentum like a parachute. Use previous events or flashbacks sparingly. Insert a few lines, then move the action forward again.
An intriguing resource for backstory technique is television episodes of “Murder, She Wrote.” The show opens with action, and characters' relationships are explained—if at all—with a single line. Then, characters’ history or previous action is inserted at about the twenty-minute point of an episode; the writers offer a hint of the past, trusting the reader to make connections. After a few lines of history, courageous J.B. Fletcher, problem-solver and spectator-pump-wearer, is back on the chase to find a murderer.
Thy shall include sensory details
Which of the five senses can you use to describe how your protagonist feels? My characters live in Wisconsin, so they’re cold a lot. (Just kidding. They also feel summer’s heat and humidity. I’m not totally cruel to them.) Wisconsin is a fantastic place to write about because its weather is unpredictable. It’s a plot device that my characters can respond to. The state has four seasons, a diverse landscape, and unique people; it’s truly a gold mine of narrative elements.
Be sure to include a sense of how your character feels and why in the initial pages of your novel. What’s around that affects your characters sense of smell or sight? Other tips about first pages include write a memorable first line and engage the reader with action. Trust your reader. Trust that a succinct first chapter will be enough. Brevity is the soul of a successful first chapter. Writing that offers a strong protagonist and conflict—just enough of it—will bring the reader into your narrative.
I always recommend submitting to Ray Rhamey’s Flogging the Quill. If you have thick skin, submit your first page for a review. See what others say about your novel’s beginning. The feedback can be harsh—I will write a blog post about the psychology behind writing critiques in the future—but submitting is a valuable exercise. You’ll learn as much about your mentality as a writer as you will from the strength of that first page.
Happy summer (and happy writing), all. ~ Tracey Kathryn, MA
P.S. I used parentheses around the word “writing” for a reason. Does your writing schedule slow during the summer? How do you stay on track when warm weather distracts you from the keyboard? I’d love to hear your strategies!