Shine on the First Page- The Real PostSorry that was a problem. Hopefully I've outwitted it this time.
In one of my earliest stories (a long time ago) I had both a wonderful, wacky plot perfectly suitable for a Regency Romp, and two of the most endearing characters I've ever created. I loved writing that story from the first page to the last. But for some reason it was a complete dud in every contest I entered. Then I entered it in the Golden Heart- my first time. I was so sure everyone would see my genius and fall in love with my characters as much as I did. They didn't. In fact I got a very confusing array of scores: 9,8,7,6,4.
Of course I figured the lower scores came from judges who didn't know what they were doing. But I soon began to realize it was the high-scoring judges who were wrong. I did have wonderful characters and a terrific plot. But I'd buried them under a lot of muck.
The muck, I discovered, was in the early chapters. Once I finally got going, the writing really was good. But the part I was presenting to the world- the partial, the contest entry, was muck and not much else.
Like a lot of new authors, I wanted to "ease into" the story. Three pages worth, telling my reader all about my heroine's scintillating and quirky personality, and all about how she so ably managed the estate her father so badly neglected. I thought it was wonderful prose, marvelous words. I was probably the only person in the world who wasn't bored by them. Then one contest judge drew a line through those three pages and pencilled in an arrow on the fourth page with the comment: "Your story starts here."
She was right, but it took me a full week to accept it. I tried and tried to re-construct a beginning that didn't sound so abrupt, and finally I gave up and started it just as it was. It eventually was re-entered and finalled in the Golden Heart, and was published as THE MUDLARK. Why? Because instead of telling my readers all about my heroine, I let her jump right in and show them who she was by what she did. And she was as bg a hit with my readers as she was with me.
Starting in the right place is probably the most important thing you can do for your story because if you don't, your readers feel something wrong, and likely within three pages they will put your story down. So from my experience with that manuscript, I developed a rule I still follow to this day. In the first two to three pages (the first one being only half a page long) I must:
1. Set the stage- time, place and mood.
2. Introduce at least one major character.
3. Give him a problem.
4. Then before he has a chance to solve the problem, give it a twist. This is the inciting incident, the point at which your story begins.
That's a lot to cram in. The only way to do it is to start the story at the very latest point I can, and finding that point is a vital but very difficult task. Most of the time I want to start in a scene that sort of begins to set the stage. But then I get that funny, uncomfortable feeling, so I ask myself when do I get to the real story. Almost always I've missed the mark with the first try, and all of that scene has to be discarded.
The beginning I like best is in HIS MAJESTY, THE PRINCE OF TOADS, which begins at the very moment Sophie feels the tension in the ballroom stiffen. Something has just changed and it's all aimed at her. Then as she turns around, in walks her estranged husband, who hasn't seen her in six years. And he walks straight up to her and asks his best friend to introduce him to the beautiful lady. In two pages, Sophie has gone from being a happy guest to realizing her long-absent husband doesn't even recognize her. And the conflict is off to a roaring start.
Often in contest entries I see a clever first line, often of dialogue, standing alone. This can be an excellent way to start your story- sometimes. But so many times the line is so manipulative that its shock value is limited. Sometimes it appears the author has come upon a very clever shocker that doesn't really fit her story, so she has gone to all kinds of manipulations to warp her story to fit the line. This doesn't work. If you can't find a shocker, then don't shock. Find strong, vivid, succinct words that bring just the right connotations with them to paint your opening picture quickly.
I'm sorry to say, an frequently opening line is grammatically awkward, or has a clumsy rhythm to it. It may have an intriguing gem of an opening in it but somehow it feels like it's stumbling around. I can't understand why a writer would insist on an opening line that is confusing or grammatically incorrect. But I see it a lot. If your line continues to feel awkward to you, it probably is to readers, too. Maybe you should cast about for a completely different way to say the same thing.
Dialogue lines as openers can be very good. Unfortunately they're also often gimmicky. I think authors see a certain shock value in an opening dialogue line with no attribution. But I see this gimmick used so often, it is coming to seem trite to me. I really think a single dialogue line without even a tag to indicate something about the speaker creates confusion in the reader, who needs something to ground her in the scene visually before something spoken comes at her. A vivid visual picture doesn't require a lot of words. People form mental images very quickly, from very few words. Try this example from my current WIP:
"That one," said the crone. Her long, bony finger emerged from a sleeve of deep green to point into the courtyard beyond the shadowed colonnade. Tall, gaunt, old, and ashen of face, she was everything Rufus was not.
If I were following the gimmicky rule, I would have said simply, "That one." That's not intriguing. It's confusing. And it leaves the reader nothing to create the mental image she needs in order to begin entering my story. But all my word choices, beginning with crone, point to two characters, a setting, and even allude to the medieval time period and the paranormal aspect. Subsequent paragraphs tell those who haven't figured it out that Rufus is the king and the crone has strange powers, especially when she leaves by walking through the wall. Every word is chosen for at least one purpose, and many of them accomplish several purposes. But notice what I didn't do.
You don't see the king meeting the crone and passing greetings back and forth. He doesn't offer her a seat, or ask her what she wants from him. She doesn't remark at the spiral ropelike design of the columns. Beginning where it does, any reader will assume the introductory stuff happened. But the reader won't care because she's already pulled into the story at the point of action. It begins exactly where it needs to begin, with the crone pointing her finger (at the hero). And very quickly the reader learns the crone has some kind of hold on the king, so that he realizes he must comply. But the king himself shows his personality as he quickly schemes just how this will be useful to him.
Now, a word about prologues. I almost never do them, but in the above story, this is the prologue. Romances in particular are often hurt by prologues because the writers use the prologues to tell what is setting up the main story. In a romance, often you want to start where the romance begins, and prologue by its very nature starts before that. Sometimes prologues tell the story of some time long in the past, even several generations before. And sometimes authors practically tell their whole story premise in the prologue. If you've just told me all about your story, why would I need to read it? So I'd like to encourage you to be very cautious about using prologues. They can be very useful, but they can hurt if they're not done well.
Boiling all this down to essentials: my advice is start your story by throwing your characters into the middle of the inciting incident. Begin with the story, not its background.