Many years ago I read submissions for a science fiction magazine. I freely admit that I didn't read everything assigned to me. Reading everything simply wasn't my job. My job was to pass along to the editor those stories that might be good enough to print. To do that, I only had to grab a story off the top of the slush pile and read far enough to know for sure that the story didn't work. Sometimes I figured this out in four or five pages. Sometimes it took four or five paragraphs. Stories written in pencil didn't get read at all. They were returned with a form rejection quoting the magazine's submission guidelines.
The first pages of your manuscript are the most important ones you will write. If you do not capture an editor in the first few pages, she will not keep reading. Likewise with the casual reader. So how do you make the first pages interesting? By answering and asking questions.
The questions you answer in the first few pages are the questions your reader brings to your story:
1. What's going on? What kind of story is this?
Your reader wants to understand the crux of the story, what genre it is, and what the story goal is going to be. Hemingway does this in the opening sentence of The Old Man and the Sea: "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish."
What kind of story is it? A fishing story.
What's going to happen? An old man is going to catch a fish.
2. Whom should I care about?
Similarly, your reader needs to believe that the hero is worth following. We don't care much what he or she looks like. We don't care about externals like hair color, or even occupation. Any occupation, in the right circumstances, can yield an intriguing character. We want to know about internals: difficult choices made under pressure, undeserved misfortune, personal values, etc. Of course, we can't know all of this up front, and we don't expect to know it. We do expect to see hints of uniqueness.
3. Why does it matter? Will it be boring?
No one wants to read a boring story. Something unexpected and believable must happen in the opening pages. This is your promise to the reader that you will not bore. You want your reader to think, "This is going to be a good ride."
These are pretty simple, yet writers often fail to answer a reader's basic storytelling questions in the opening pages.
Less simple is the reader's desire to be provoked. Just as a reader expects you to answer her questions, she also expects you to pose some questions of your own. She wants to have her curiosity engaged. This is your job as a writer. Even as you explain what kind of story she's in and why she should care, you must begin dropping hints. You must start posing questions like:
Will Jim and Tammy get together?
Will Fluffy survive the dogcatcher?
Will the villain really detonate the bomb?
All such questions will be specific to your story. Many will be lesser questions, and not related to the story goal. Some will provoke fear, others simple curiosity. For instance, in Jim Gunn's novel, The Immortals we read about one of the characters carrying a "needle-gun." What's a needle-gun, you ask? Exactly. The point is to get us to ask the question. It isn't a major question, but it adds to our curiosity about the world of the novel. Similarly, here is the second sentence from E. L. Beach's Run Silent, Run Deep: "They said to tell the whole story from the beginning--about the Medal of Honor and what led up to it, I mean--and that's a big order." Medal of Honor? huh? What Medal of Honor?
The trick is to present information that leaves something interesting unexplained. Your job is to drop hints that imply an intriguing answer, and then fulfill that expectation by answering the question in an intriguing way. This means, among other things, that you never answer your own questions until your reader needs you to. Don't tell the reader what a needle-gun is until she needs to know. The longer her curiosity is aroused, and the more things she is curious about, the more interested she will be.
Answering and asking questions is how you make your first pages compelling. Give your reader the information she needs in order to place herself fully into the world of your story, and then provoke her imagination with questions that arouse curiosity. She may not buy your story, but she will at least want to keep reading.
Daniel Schwabauer (www.danschwabauer.com
) is editor of Crosswind Comics, where he develops educational materials for youth-at-risk and prison inmates. His professional work includes novels, stage plays, radio scripts, short stories, newspaper columns, comic books, non-fiction ghost writing, and scripting for the PBS animated series Auto-B-Good
. His writing curriculum for teens, One Year Adventure Novel
, leads students through the process of writing a novel in one school year. (www.oneyearnovel.com