In a few days I’ll be a panelist for the Live Action Slush Pile at the Wordbridge writer’s conference. If you’ve never seen an LASP, brave writers submit the first page of their manuscript to be read… out loud, in front out an audience. Panelists (usually editors, agents, or other writers) sit at the front and as the story is read, they put up their hands if they come across a point where they would put the story down. If the audience sees three hands go up they scream out “DIE!” (Or something more encouraging… depending on the conference.)
The panel proceeds to dissect what they’ve heard. Sometimes it can get heated. But it’s always educational.
With that in mind, I thought I might offer some of my best tips on opening a novel.
Remember Your Goal
The goal of your opening page is simple: get the reader to page two.
Draw the reader in, orient them to your world, acquaint them with a character and a problem, but if page one doesn’t get the reader to page two, nothing else really matters.
Avoid Cliché Openings
Stated another way… never, under any circumstances, open with a dream.
Agents and editors complain about dream opening ad nauseam, simply because they see it so frequently. For whatever reason, dreams are a common way for beginning writers to open a story. Even if you happen to have the best novel in history of novels, starting with a cliché immediately puts you on shaky ground because 99 of 100 other stories that have opened like this have been duds.
Think of it like a spam email. Sure, there’s a small chance the guy who sent it may actually be a foreign prince willing to share his wealth with a complete stranger for the shelter of an offshore bank account. But are you going to take that risk?
Other major cliché openings to avoid include:
– a character waking up
– a character looking out over their land
– a character looking in a mirror
– the main character’s birth
– characters sparring
– a character going about their daily routine without a significant (to them) problem
– the weather.
Key Information Only
Avoid the info dump.
One of the biggest triggers in the LASP occurs when you have a great hook… an opening that totally grabs the reader… only to stop the momentum with a mountain of backstory that leaves the opening action in the dust.
This said, one of the biggest challenges writers face is that in order to tell the story, the reader needs key information, sometimes a lot of it. But it doesn’t have to come all at once.
When you first write a story, sometimes the only way to get it down, is to dump the information onto the page. And that’s okay. When I say avoid the info dump, I mean avoid it in any draft that’s meant for an audience. Once it’s down, your litmus test for whether it needs to be on page one is simple. Is this information needed to get to page two?
Avoid Too Many Unfamiliar Names, Places or Concepts
Similar to avoiding the information dump, it’s also important to avoid throwing too many unfamiliar terms at a reader. Each new term uses up active working memory. On the first page, the reader isn’t deep enough to know which terms are critical and which ones can slide into the background, so they give all unfamiliar terms equal weight, but each one requires work. Once this reaches a critical level, reading becomes too much work and they move on to another activity.
In writing science fiction that involves ensemble casts of astronauts working together to fly spacecraft, I struggle with this one immensely, because I have to introduce the team, their hierarchy and a problem they’re facing all at once. My best tip for managing this is to focus on a single, central point of view character. All problems and relationships are then viewed through that character’s lens. And while there may be other, bigger things going on, the reader can focus on what is most important to that single character at that single moment in time.
Clear Point of View
Head hopping is another deal breaker in the LASP.
If you don’t know, head hopping is when you describe a scene from more than one character’s point of view without any clear and obvious break for the reader to figure that out.
For the record, it can be done well. But more often than not, when it happens on the first page of a story, it can be disorienting for a reader. They lose track of who they’re following, the immersive experience diminishes, and they put the book down.
Sometimes this can be challenging for a writer to identify, because as the writer, you know what’s happening in your scene. This is where editors and beta readers help immensely.
Polish the Draft
This one should be obvious.
While it can be tempting to throw your amazing idea into the pile to see how it will fair, taking the time to do some self edits and having another person read it over privately will help immensely. The last thing you want in an LASP is a reader stumbling over awkward wording, or a typo in front of the audience.
Think about the efficiency of the wording. Have you picked out all of those pesky modifiers like “almost” and “nearly” and “began to?” Are you using active voice?
So What Works?
A lot of this advice is about stuff to avoid. But in the end, what makes it through to the end without triggering the audience death call?
Start with a hook.
That’s easy to say, I know. It can take a long time to come up with a knockout first line, and sometimes one never comes. Just remember you don’t have to come up with one immediately though. Sometimes the best opening won’t be obvious until you’ve finished the story and understand what it’s really about.
That saidKeys to a good hook include: (i) a unique or abnormal situation, (ii) it’s explained concisely in a sentence or two, (iii) it’s on target with the genre and/or theme of the story, and (iv) it leads the reader into the next paragraph.
Focus on a single character, with a single problem.
There can be other characters around them of course, but this character is going to lead the reader into your fictional world. They are the lens through which information is filtered and experienced. The first character does not have to be the main character. Sometimes it’s the antagonist. But the reader is going to invest time in the first character, and breaking away from them will provide a natural break point in the story and an opportunity to put the book down. So make a conscious, intentional decision about the character you open with.
The first problem does not have to be the core problem in the book. It could be something as simple as being late for a job interview. But it should drive the first character to make a decision and take action. And ultimately, you need it to drive your reader deeper into your story.
Establish Genre, Time and Place
When a science fiction reader picks up a science fiction book, they want to know that’s what they’re getting. Not every science fiction book has to open with a space battle, but there should be something on that first page that will indicate the kind of story they are in for… aliens, spaceships, artificial intelligences, that kind of thing. Because if it’s not there, that’s cause for the reader to put the book down and move on to something else.
A clear sense of time and place also helps. Orient the reader to the fictional setting. Incidentally this is why staring with dialogue is such a challenge. Because without any other information dialogue is two characters on a blackened stage.
Know Your Audience
My last tip is that your first page is ultimately yours. This advice is based on my own experience, and a part of that experience is that editors, agents, writers and readers don’t always agree. People have vastly differing opinions and what may glue some readers to a story will turn others off. There’s no single formula for a first page that’s going to satisfy everyone.
That’s one of the great things about the LASP. You get to see audience reactions. It’s similar if you get a chance to read your work with a local writing group, or take a creative writing class, or join a critique group. A single person’s opinion is just that. But when you have a whole bunch of opinions, and better yet objective reactions, you can identify patterns in the feedback. And that is what help you to improve as a writer.