16.28: Common First-Page Mistakes

Your Hosts: Dongwon Song, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler

Let’s have a frank, and possibly painful discussion about the ways in which the first page can go wrong. It may seem like hackneyed writing advice, but rules like “don’t start with the main character waking up” are rules for a reason.  In this episode we’ll talk about those reasons, and why it’s so unlikely for books which break them to succeed with readers.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson

Play

Have a look at the first page of your work-in-progress, and look for clichéd mistakes.

The First Line (literary magazine)

11 thoughts on “16.28: Common First-Page Mistakes”

  1. Loved loved loved this episode! Thank you so much! It makes so much sense and I know I made the mistake of having my character wake up in the first draft of my first novel. I fully intend on following your advice!!!

    I have a question about the exceptions.

    I actually went back and looked at some first lines of Elantris and Ghost Talkers.

    Now, both had a prologue of sorts. Elantris had a long, “typical” prologue and there was a sonnet before chapter one of GT. So I’m not sure if that’s one reason why the exceptions I found here work?

    Elantris opened chapter one with the MC waking up. And chapter 1 of GT began with a quote.

    Now, please understand, they both worked for me.

    My question is, WHY did they work? Why did these apparent exceptions seem to not keep me from putting the books down or keep the publishers from changing those first lines?

    Thanks for all you do. You all rock!

    Respectfully,
    Jason

  2. Writing pundits: “Don’t start with the main character waking up.”
    Andy Weir: “Hold my food tube.”

  3. ‘I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.’ (Ender’s Game).

    Tell me that isn’t one of the great openings in Science Fiction.

  4. The first page quartet, Dongwon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, took a look at some mistakes that are often found on first pages, and why these are problems. Waking up, dialog, a fight… these seem so natural, but they are tricky. Orient your readers with a trail of breadcrumbs, but watch out for ducks? You can read all about it in the transcript available now in the archives.

  5. 1. Writing pundits express mystification about why people continue to try to do things after they’re advised not to.
    2. Writing pundits say, “Don’t do these things…”
    3. Writing pundits spend the rest of the episode talking about how famous authors have done these things successfully.

    Hmm. The third point explains the first, no? A slight reframing might be:

    1. DO start your novel with a character just waking up if your objective is to immerse the audience in a feeling of disorientation. Perhaps bearing in mind that getting the reader to feel disoriented and yet continue reading is an advanced trick…
    2. DO start your novel with dialog if your material is shocking and you hope to propel the reader forward by making them feel that shock upfront (throwing them into the deep end, so to speak). Perhaps bearing in mind that not everyone is invigorated by a splash of cold water…
    3. DON’T start with a waking-up scene or a line of dialog unless there’s a rationale or justification that’s intrinsic to your material.

    1. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in THE BLACK SWAN, gives us the principle of the cemetery.

      Lots of successful folks do stuff that we’re told not to do. But if we check the metaphorical cemetery, we see countless throngs of UNsuccessful folks whose work was buried (metaphorically) because it broke the rules.

      1. Where do you find this metaphorical cemetery? How do we see the unsuccessful work that was buried?

        1. I suspect that gets to the heart of Howard’s point – of all the literary works to have ever been written, the consumer only has visibility into the thin sliver of it that’s been published. Just by virtue of having been published, those works are already statistical outliers. Those few published works to achieve remarkable commercial success, then, are outliers among outliers.

          Literary agents and writing teachers see the full spectrum of written works: They see the vastness of the cemetery.

          It’s safe to assume that the advice in this episode is more or less statistically sound.

          That being said, I’m of the mind that if your goal is to be an outlier among outliers, then statistics are not your friend.

  6. Great episode. I went to reread the first pages of Hail Mary. Not only does Weir start with waking up, he also starts with dialog. Haha. Hopefully, I’ll be that good someday.

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