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.
See April’s website, Editorial Inspirations. Connect with her on Facebook at her personal page or her Editorial Inspirations page. You can also find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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
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24 responses to “Editor Spotlight – April Michelle Davis”
Well done! 😀 THank you!
I am glad you enjoyed this article. It was a lot of fun to write!
And that shows — it shows when we enjoy what we write – so the reader feels that and responds!
I do enjoy this topic. At a writer’s retreat a few years ago, I taught a related session on “Critiquing Your First Pages” (audio excerpt can be found at: http://www.editorialinspirations.com/services/presentations). It is difficult for writers, though, to receive critical feedback and then to mold their babies differently based on that feedback.
Yes – I’m an editor and an author, so I’m on both sides of the fence 😀
Perfect timing! Gives me food for thought as I am going to be rewriting my opening chapter yet again. Thanks!
Yes, opening chapters are often the most difficult to write. Many authors leave the opening for the end; other writers completely rewrite the opening after they have completed the entire manuscript.
Great advice, April. Thank you for the clear reminders! You just made my list of editors 🙂
Great to hear! Please let me know if I can answer any questions.
I have never considered writing my opening or first chapter AFTER I’ve written the rest of a story. Great article, and great feedback and discussion. Pleasure having you here, April.
If the opening is written after (or at least greatly revised after), the author now knows more about where the story is headed and the goals for the opening. Therefore, the author is able to make the opening stronger with a stronger hook and more foreshadowing that when read for the first time by the reader will flow with the story. As the reader continues along in the story, the reader can have ah-ha moments that are often more effective.
It makes perfect sense – now that I’ve read all this and thought about it. I am going to try this idea on the next short story I write. And that’s the rub – sometimes I just don’t know where to start – I work and sweat so hard on a bang-up opening, it delays the writing!
And rather than wasting time trying to figure out the beginning when your brain is not ready for it, write what you know of the story, and then come back to the beginning when your brain begins to develop it.
April, I enjoyed your tips!
How would you suggest applying them to non-fiction/memoir?
Denise, I am glad you enjoyed the article!
As for applying these tips to a memoir, it would be pretty similar. It needs to have a story-worthy problem. Most memoirs are man vs. self with some inner struggle of the main character, such as coming of age or dealing with death. The opening needs to include a hook to engage the readers and keep them involved. By stating that the book is a memoir, the rules of the story are implied: real world with no science fiction. Forecasting the ending should also be done so that the reader feels satisfied upon reading the ending.
Hope this helps!
Let me know if I can answer any other questions!
I believe it’s children’s book author Richard Peck who writes the novel, throws out the first chapter without rereading it, and then writes the chapter that’s supposed to be there.
Good point about introducing the problem — it’s not necessarily the main plot problem, but rather the emotional problem. I think sometimes authors try to jump into the story too quickly because they think they need to get right to the main conflict, but that usually takes some set up.
Yes, Chris, having a small conflict at the beginning of the story that relates to the main conflict introduces the characters while hooking the readers. It is also a nice segue into the main conflict.
Many authors do struggle with writing the beginning of a story because it is so important. Therefore, to keep from having writer’s block before even beginning to write, many writers simply write the beginning of the story as they currently know it. Then, once they have written the entire story, they go back and eliminate the unnecessary content from the beginning that was really their own brainstorming and make it more effectively begin the story they wrote.
I am not sure about Richard Peck’s writing process, but I know that many writers do completely eliminate the first chapter as part of their self-editing process.
I love things that make me re-think the way I do things (not that I haven’t been known to do a great many things backwards). Thanks, April!
Elizabeth, I am glad that I could make you re-think your writing process. Examining activities a person does makes that person more knowledgeable, even if the person stays with the same process–at least now the process has been examined and consciously chosen.
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Yes, this is all great advice. I’ve noticed in both of my published books that (after many many drafts), my third chapter became my first! So important to start with a hook and keep the reader invested in your character from sentence one. Thanks for a great post!
Yes, often what writers think will be the opening to a story changes once the entire manuscript has been written. Because writers know this, many writers get stuck with the opening because they want it to be the perfect one from the beginning of the writing process. Hence, writer’s block. First, writers just need to get the piece written, even if it’s not very good, even if the beginning or the ending are great. From there, the writer can revise, work with fellow writers, and hire an editor–none of which can happen if a writer gets stuck on that perfect beginning before anything has even been written.
Thanks for commenting, Pamela. How many books have we opened to the first pages, only to say “blah” and put it back on the shelf, or click ‘next.’
April – Thanks for responding – I guess you were surprised to see this resurrected – I’m linking to all my Editor Spotlight posts, hopefully to get people thinking about hiring an editor for their holiday releases. 🙂