My Monday morning writing club has an ongoing argument about the importance of a quick start to a novel: diving right in versus a slower reveal. The rulemeisters say it’s all got to be there on the first page: meet the hero, introduce the conflict, set the tone and genre. The first page makes a promise to the reader that must be fulfilled. “But I’m not writing a thriller,” one of the clubbers says, or “Surely that’s for genre fiction, not literary.”
I, for a change, agree with the finger waggers on this one. I finally took my own advice and pulled some books I’ve read—so I know the story—and reread the first few pages. I am blown away with what I see this time around. Here’s my short stack:
Kristan Higgans, Just One of the Guys. The first sentence is spoken to the narrator: “I think we should stop seeing each other.” Her reaction is to choke, but on her appetizer not the news. It sets up the comedy and the main character: she’s tomboy, she’s got boy troubles, and she can take care of herself—she gives herself the Heimlich while this oblivious boy dumps her. It also sets necessary context for her problem, which is that she’s squeamish about blood. In another context, this could have been a minor character trait. Higgans’s intro makes it into a novel-worthy issue.
Michael Chabon, Summerland is a fantasy for kids about a kid who has to use his baseball skills to save the universe. The worldbuilding is complex: Chabon builds two parallel strands to the world we know and tweaks the history of baseball to weave it together. The first page, however, describes an entirely mainstream world—the first outright paranormal event doesn’t happen until page 6. There’s a hint on the first page that this won’t be your ordinary small-town baseball league: Chabon describes the family car, which is named Skidbladnir and has a dashboard labeled in Swedish, a language none of them speak. Chabon’s depiction of parallel worlds that aren’t fantastical flows from this strong grounding in the world we know.
Gail Carriger, Soulless is peopled by paranormal characters, so along with engaging the reader in this world, Carriger has to lay out some of its rules. Her device for exposition—a new vampire who gets tutored by the main character—turns out to be a major element of the mystery that follows. Why doesn’t he know? Where has he come from? And why does the main character have the qualities she does?
The tour guiding Carriger (and other fantasy authors) must provide, and the questions she (and other mystery authors) must raise bring up a myth of the promise of the first pages that has tripped up many a novice critiquer. Just because the questions are raised doesn’t mean this is where they will be answered—that’s what the rest of the book is for (additionally, it doesn’t have to be true that introducing these elements early wrecks the suspense). The prescription is that this is where one hooks the reader, not where one reels them in. The key is that the people and questions that appear at the start are important to the main storyline—it isn’t a bait and switch.
I nearly always take the position that there’s an exception to every rule (note the caveat in this sentence). Writing prescriptions in particular seem to be written by (whoops, almost said “soulless”) bookkeepers whose real training is in expository themes, not novels. The implicit promise of the first pages rule is one that’s easy to blow off because it’s rarely a problem with published writing.
Go take another look at some books you’ve read. When I go back to these books that I’ve kept and reread those first pages, I’m impressed with them again. These pages set it all up. It’s that day you go ahead and grab a jacket before you leave the house and you’re glad you did. It’s back to school, it’s rereading when the not-yet-read pile is teetering, but it’s great to see what in fact the author did forecast in that first couple of pages.
Addendum: here’s a post of snappy first lines from famous novels.