Article by April Michelle Davis
What’s the first thing you notice about a book?
Now imagine yourself in a bookstore. You are looking for a good book. What about a book is going to pique your interest to make you pick it up? Possibly the cover art, the title, or the author? What’s the next thing you might look at? The opening lines? You open the book to the first page, and guess what? The opening lines are boring; they don’t grab your attention and make you want to read the book. So you toss the book aside and look for a new one.
Now, image that you sent your manuscript to a publisher. The publisher does not have the cover art to look at and may have a title to read, but the marketing department will probably change the title anyway. So what is the publisher going to look at? Your opening lines. If your first line is a cliché, you will probably receive a rejection. If the publisher gets to your second line, but it is boring, you will probably receive a rejection. And if the publisher gets to your third line, but it does not intrigue, you will probably receive a rejection.
This is why your opening lines are paramount for your manuscript to be published.
So what should the opening pages of a manuscript do? There are four main goals:
1. Introduce the story-worthy problem
The reader should be quickly introduced to the problem that will encompass much of the story. This needs to be a problem that is important enough to the main character that it can sustain the entire length of the story. The story will probably include other problems as well that the main character encounters while trying to resolve the larger problem, and these can be introduced when appropriate, but the overall conflict of the story must be introduced quickly or the reader will begin questioning the purpose of the story.
In the Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum, the reader quickly learns that the main character, Dorothy, is unhappy with her life. Throughout the entire story, Dorothy is learning how to be happy with what she has and that she does truly love the people who are part of her life. This is a classic man vs. self literary conflict occurring while Dorothy is trying to find her place in the world.
2. Hook the readers
A suspenseful event should occur in the beginning of the story to hook the reader, and this event should be connected to the overall problem in the story that the main character must overcome.
In the Wizard of Oz, the tornado in the beginning of the story takes Dorothy away from the place where she has not been happy, so she should now be happy, right? Instead, she learns that she is not happier, but actually more unhappy because she now misses her family.
3. Establish the rules
In the world the author has created, the rules need to be quickly established. They cannot be introduced conveniently as the story progresses—then, the reader begins to doubt the story and may even put down the book if it becomes too unbelievable. The rules can be anything the author desires, but they must be consistent. A story cannot begin in one genre and switch to another without the reader questioning the author. If the author continues to perform unexpected surprises like this, the reader may set the book aside because the reader cannot hold any expectations for the story or the world that has been created.
In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is upset with her life. She expresses her sadness when she visits the wizard neighbor and other neighbors. In the movie, to further emphasize Dorothy’s sadness, she sings a song. It is a song that a young girl might sing to herself. She is not rapping or singing hip-hop.
4. Forecast the ending
Many authors write the opening pages of the story last, and one reason for this is that the opening pages should forecast the ending of the story. The reader should not know exactly how the story will end, but the reader should know where the story is heading. Foreshadowing allows the reader to feel that the story has completed a circle If there is no foreshadowing, then the story has simply ended, but it does not necessarily feel complete.
In the Wizard of Oz, after learning that Dorothy is upset, hearing her song in the movie, and experiencing the strength of the tornado, the reader can assume she will find her way, but by then the reader is hooked on Dorothy’s journey.
Prior to starting Editorial Inspirations in 2001, April Michelle Davis worked as an assistant editor at the National Society of Professional Engineers and a program assistant for the American Prosecutors Research Institute. Various degrees include a master of professional studies degree in publishing and a bachelor of arts degree in English. In addition, she holds the following certificates: Editing, book publishing, and professional editing.
April frequently attends and speaks at workshops, conferences, book festivals, and writers’ retreats and has been a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association since 2005, a member of the American Society for Indexing since 2009, and a member of the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors since 2010.
April is the chapter coordinator for the Virginia chapter of the Editorial Freelancers Association, and she is the chair-elect for the Mid- & South-Atlantic chapter for the American Society for Indexing.
I realize that not every editor/proofreader is perfect for every writer. I present the Editor Spotlight series of blog posts to help all writers find the perfect editor. The Editor Spotlight series will be presented throughout my regular blog posts and special theme weeks. – Karen S. Elliott