Writing Excuses 16.28: Common First-Page Mistakes
Key Points: Don’t start with a character waking up. These little moments of life don’t really tell us what the book is about, or even much about the character. Your opening should ground the reader and orient them. Don’t start with dialogue. We don’t know who the person is or where they are. Be aware, readers take your beginning literally, so avoid wild metaphors. Keep our readers going forward as fast as possible. Make your opening a trail of breadcrumbs. What kind of questions do you want the reader asking? Don’t start with a fight. We don’t know what the stakes are, or what’s going on. We don’t care about the character yet. Action is only exciting if there is real tension to it, a real threat to it.
[Season 16, Episode 28]
[Dongwon] This is Writing Excuses, Common First-Page Mistakes.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dongwon] Okay. This week, we are talking about some of the most common mistakes that we all see in first pages of books. So, there’s a few things that are sort of talked about a lot in workshops, among agents, among a lot of the writing advisors. But we wanted to break down a little bit why these are… Why these don’t work as places to start your book, even though they are sort of natural places that you think might be a good way to open. So, I think the first one is a really classic comment that you hear a lot, which is, “Don’t start your story with a character waking up.” We see this a lot of a character coming out of sleep, waking up in bed, and again, it’s this thing of starting the story at the beginning because you think, “Oh. My character’s going to have a big, exciting day. I should start where the day starts.” Which is them getting out of bed, seeing themselves in the mirror, so that they can describe themselves, get a cup of coffee, drive to work. These are all natural things, because it’s what we think about as a person’s life. Because a lot of a person’s life is these little moments. The problem is, as a reader, you don’t know anything about what the story is. By the time you’re done with that scene, you have no information about the book. You may know a little bit about the character. But these also aren’t moments that are really defining who a character is and what they care about under pressure.
[Mary Robinette] Right. Because one of the things that you’re dealing with in the morning is that you’re disoriented. Right? Part of your goal in that opening is to ground your reader and to help them feel oriented. But a character’s natural state… I mean, your natural state in the morning is disoriented. The things that you’re thinking about are not the things that are most important to you through the day. They’re just like, “Where are my pants?”
[Mary Robinette] That’s not… I mean, I’m sure that there is out there somewhere someone who will write a really compelling story about where are my pants…
[Mary Robinette] But that’s…
[Dan] But it’s not you.
[Mary Robinette] It’s not…
[Dan] I mean, I do so many chapter critiques, and I teach so many classes, I am astonished at the sheer number of people who will tell me to my face, “Yes, I know that we’re not supposed to do this. But I’m doing it differently.” No, you’re not. Like, that’s why we tell people not to do this. The odds of you, on your very first novel, being the one who cracks the code and is able to do this cliché in a brilliant and innovative way… It’s just safer to stay away from these kinds of things.
[Dongwon] Of course, the problem with any kind of writing advice is there is someone out there…
[Dongwon] Who did do it and it’s great.
[Dongwon] Odds are, it’s not you. Maybe it is. You can try. But then don’t be frustrated when it doesn’t work.
[Mary Robinette] So, like, for instance, there’s a book that’s just come out, which is Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. His character literally… It starts with his character waking up in a literal white room. But he has reasons for doing that. Like, this is one of the things, it’s like when you do something like that, you are buying a thing. He’s buying something very specific with that. He is buying a character who has been in a medically induced coma in spaceflight. Most of the fun of the book is figuring out… Like, all of the book, really, the fun of it is him figuring out what’s going on. So, he’s buying a specific thing. However, I’m also pretty darned convinced that if that manuscript landed on an average agent’s desk, that they would bounce off of that. You have to buy trust from the reader in some way. Starting with something that… Something like that on your first go round is just not safe. Like, Andy Weir has bought trust because he’s Andy Weir. Not because of the actual writing on the page. Which is not fair, but it’s true.
[Howard] The first lines, the first page of The Martian were outstanding. They grabbed me straight out of the gate. The book convinced me that I am… I am willing to pick up more Andy Weir books and read well beyond the first page before making decisions.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Howard] That is a luxury that debut authors simply don’t have.
[Mary Robinette] Well, the other thing is that he’s using all of the other tool. He’s using voice and he’s created an unusual setting that the character is waking up in.
[Mary Robinette] But there are other mistakes, too. It’s not just waking up. There’s starting with dialogue. This is another example of a thing that I see a lot of people do. You can do it. Like, the book that I started… I mentioned last week starts with a line of dialogue. The problem with starting with a line of dialogue is that we do not hear a voice without attaching things to it in the real world. It’s incredibly rare to hear a voice and have no sense of who the person is. But when you start with a line of unattributed dialogue, you have no sense of who that person is, you don’t know where you are. So…
[Dongwon] The thing that I… Oh, I’m sorry.
[Mary Robinette] Go on. Oh. What I was going to say was that the reason that it works in The Last Watch and then also Ender’s Game begins with just straight dialogue. No dialogue tags at all. Very, very short. But what it is telling you is that these characters are not important. The subject of the conversation is the thing that is important. In J. S. Dewes’s, the subject of the conversation was the main character. In Ender’s Game, the subject of the conversation was Ender. It’s very, very fast and it gets you on and it launches you. What were you going to say, Dongwon?
[Dongwon] Oh, the thing that I notice most of the time is that when it does start with that line of dialogue, I immediately forget what that line was. It’s almost invisible to me. Nine times out of 10, because I have… There’s nothing for me to attach it to. Right? The important thing to remember is you have spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours thinking about those characters, this world, your plot, all these elements. I, as reader, coming to your story for the first time, know exactly zero things about the book that you’re giving me. I have nothing to attach anything to. So anything you present to me, A, I’m going to take it very literally, so be careful of wild metaphors in your first paragraph, because I will take them as real actual things that you are saying. Like, if you say this person is a duck, I’m going to think that person is a dock, even if what you meant was metaphorically, this person walks and talks like a duck. Right?
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. For instance, Gregor Samsa? Not actually a cockroach.
[Dongwon] But, yeah, so starting with a line of dialogue with nothing to attach it to in terms of character or setting or story… It just vanishes. It disappears into some recess of my brain, never to be seen again. So I have to go back to that later to get context for wait, why are they talking about this? Oh, right. Somebody said something before. The last thing you ever want your reader doing on the first page is having to go back to the top again.
[Dongwon] You want them going forward as fast as you can make them.
[Dan] Let me give an example of this. Sometimes… So, like in the example that Mary Robinette gave last time, I think the first line of dialogue was “Spread your legs and bend over.” Right? Which by itself is very eye-catching, it is very compelling, because it’s shocking. That kind of gives it a pass and makes it work, because it makes it more memorable. But… So, consider one of my very favorite first lines of all time, which is Paradise by Toni Morrison. It’s narration. The narrator says, “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” It’s incredibly shocking. It’s compelling. But because it’s narration, it’s easy to understand. If you take that exact same line, they shoot the white girl first, and you put it in quotation marks, what you’re doing is adding a bunch of extra layers on top of it that the reader doesn’t understand. We don’t know who’s saying it. We don’t know why they’re saying it. We don’t know who they’re saying it to or in what situation. Which means we understand it far less then if it was just the exact same words, but as narration.
[Mary Robinette] That is a great example. Speaking of first lines, let me use this to segue to our book of the week, which is something I’m going to talk about. This is a literary magazine that I think you all should pick up a copy of. This is the place that I made my first couple of sales. It is called, literally, The First-Line. thefirstline.com The premise of the magazine, it’s a quarterly. They… Each issue of the magazine, every story in that issue has the exact same first-line. Because their premise is that if you hand call me Ishmael to Mark Twain, you do not get Moby Dick. You get something totally, totally different. So it’s a really good example of what a first-line… Like, how important a first-line is, but also how much the rest of the story comes from the specific author. Like, the first-line is incredibly important, and also, not important at all.
[Mary Robinette] To segue us out of that, I’m going to talk about a literary horror story, which is that my second novel, Glamour in Glass, when it came out, they accidentally omitted the opening line of the novel.
[Mary Robinette] So, this is a thing that we… I had done all of the things. I had gone back… I labored. I am not kidding. There is a handwritten page that is just me rewriting that first-line over and over again to get exactly all of the beats that I wanted. They left it out. For reasons, not on purpose, it was a… For reasons. We’ll just leave it at that.
[Dan] Where did you bury the bodies?
[Mary Robinette] You know, we have 12 acres.
[Mary Robinette] And there’s a gully. So…
[Dongwon] I feel that story in my bones every time I hear it. Goof.
[Mary Robinette] But the thing is, if you don’t know that first line is missing, the book actually plays just fine. It breaks me inside, because I labored over it, and also because my closing line is an intentional mirror of the opening line. But one of the things that I did as kind of part of that how do we deal with this was that I posted a thing on my website of the second line to books and asked people to guess which book this came from. People were able to guess. So the thing to understand, I think, about openings is that it is a series of breadcrumbs. The mistake that a lot of authors will make is that that first thing that they put down on the page isn’t a breadcrumb leading to the next thing. There’s no logical causal progression. They’re just trying for I’m going to try to catch… I’m going to hook the reader with the shocking thing, and then we don’t go on from there.
[Dongwon] I think that’s really the argument with dialogue is it doesn’t give you a base to build off of. It will connect at some point, but in the example were talking about, in terms of The Last Watch, it connects so cleanly to the next line that you do get that breadcrumb effect. The way I think about it is you have a first-line that leads to the first paragraph which leads to the first page which leads to the first scene. If you can get them past that threshold, you have them, at least for the first chunk of your book. You’ve got them into your book at that point. So if you think about that progression as sort of a clean step up into where you want to get to, I think that can be really helpful.
[Howard] I also like thinking about it in terms of the kinds of questions I want the reader to be asking themselves. Even if they’re not consciously articulating those questions. And how swiftly and satisfactorily I can answer those questions. If the first line of the book is dialogue, the reader’s question to my mind should be something along the lines of, “Why would someone say that?” Then I immediately am told why that is being said, and it is an answer that raises another question. “Oh, that makes perfect sense. But what’s going to happen to…” And now I’m hooked. So the first line of dialogue can work that way. But, yeah, if the first line of dialogue, if the question I’m asking is “Uh. Who is talking? What’s even going on?” That is way too broad a question. I want that first line to ask me a narrower question, ask the reader a narrower question, so that I can answer it specifically.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I’m going to talk about, just to segue us a little bit away from verbal dialogue, is also physical dialogue. Wesley Chu talks about combat as being nonverbal dialogue, that it is a conversation. So when you start with a fight scene without telling us why we are in the fight scene, it’s like coming in on two people having a conversation without understanding what any of the stakes are. So another very common mistake that you will see is, again, you want to start… You want to start with the action, so you start with people having a fight. The reason that James Bond films can start with a cold open of Bond doing the things is because we know that we’re in a James Bond film. Bond is already an established character.
[Howard] And the cold open is the… dun dada dun dun… dun dun dun… The music that tells us why we are here. It’s…
[Mary Robinette] Yes…
[Howard] That opening romp isn’t quite that cold.
[Dongwon] I think one of the challenges of starting with a fight scene… People think, “Oh, I need to start in media res, and that’s going to be exciting.” But we don’t know the character yet, we don’t care about the character yet, so if this character dies, I genuinely don’t care. Or if they get shot, I’m like, “Okay. Cool. What’s this book about?” Right? So, I think you need to give us something that we really care about in some way to attach to the character and really pull us into the story that way. So I think people think action is a great way to start because it’s exciting, but action’s only exciting if there’s real tension to it, if there’s real threat to it. There’s no threat if there is no character that we know yet. So I think it can be a really tricky place to do it I think with all three of these examples, as we’re talking about it, it’s sort of become clear as we talk about it and when we get in-depth with it, is that these aren’t fatal errors, but they are starting a book on hard [mode]. Right? It is possible to do these things, but you’ve set yourself a very high threshold that you need to clear in terms of your need to communicate to the reader knowingly… You kind of need that wink, wink, nudge, nudge, in those opening pages of I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I’m doing it anyways, and you’re going to trust me, because I’m so competent at doing this thing. So it’s all about building that trust in the reader in that opening scene.
[Dongwon] Go ahead.
[Mary Robinette] In fact, building trust is what we’re going to be talking about next week. So, before we… Because I can feel myself wanting to talk about how to do that, right now. But why don’t we give them homework, which is a very simple assignment this time.
[Dongwon] Your homework is make sure you haven’t done these. Go back to your first page and consider where you’re opening. Go back to that first scene and consider am I doing these mistakes. Maybe not necessarily one of these specific things. But think about the principles we started to talk about here in terms of making sure we have a character we can attach to. Making sure we have context, and that we’re not coming into the story disoriented and confused. Really examine that first page and see am I making these mistakes. If not, then how do I make sure that we’re moving forward from here?
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It really is my character… Have I given the audience something to orient? Have I given them a breadcrumb about what the future story is going to be like? We’ll talk next week about how to build trust with your reader. But right now… You are out of excuses. Now go write.