Last year, I interned at Tin House Books as a “slush-pile” reader. My job, along with the other five or six rotating interns, was to read the first fifty (50) pages of unsolicited agent submissions, make comments and then move on to the next manuscript. We screened the pile to inform the editorial staff of their potential and, in our commentary, supplied key lines of rejection text. The reality – and this appears to be a common opinion amongst slush-pile readers – one knows way before page fifty how much “potential” a manuscript exhibits. That is not to say that most submissions were bad, they weren’t. Tin House only accepted agent submissions, or suggestions from connected sources. In fact, most of the novel manuscripts or short story collections I read were on par with student work from workshops, in grad school, or submitted to The Whistling Fire, a journal I co-edit with a couple of friends. In most cases, the work is good. The language is creative. The plots are often sound. What’s lacking is specificity and direction in support of an overall theme. Some writers call it Tone (with a capital T).
Something happens when a reader commits to an unfamiliar fiction. There are patterns of enjoyment one seeks in order to justify a several hundred-page commitment, similar to, say, choosing a mortgage. As time passes, the page numbers grow and the number of remaining pages shrinks. The reader pays off their debt of time-invested with the satisfaction of a fruitful investment. I wanted to understand the patterns that keep readers reading beyond the first ten pages, so I went home and took all the novels off my shelf and laid them out like old lovers to remember how the affairs began. I picked up fiction at garage sales, like a barfly waiting for cheap beer. I hung out in bookstore aisles gulping down opening pages, before clerks drove me off for fear of copyright indiscretions. I re-familiarized myself with novels I’d read long ago and others I’d only heard about to understand if Gone With the Wind has a better beginning as a book or as a movie, to understand what that guy caught in the rye, and to figure out what it is about Twilight, or Love Story, or Island of the Blue Dolphin that kept different decades of adolescents reading beyond page ten.
From the first ten pages, one cannot glean that Anna Karenina will jump in front of a train, or ascertain what makes this Gatsby so Great. How can one tell, at the beginning, who Frankenstein will be in the end? Literally! I created a blog, suggestively called, First10pages.com so I could put my observations and discoveries in order and formulate some opinions on this question.
In most cases, there are only subtle indications of a story’s ultimate direction. The opening of Gone With the Wind features a trio of teenagers conversing on a front porch, not the sweeping panorama one usually considers when they remember this classic. The grand stuff emerges later in the story, but Tone is clearly established. Even though Margaret Mitchell spends the first many pages describing these three, aristocratic adolescents flirting on a broad, Georgia verandah, interweaving information on their looks, clothing and movements with brief glimpses into their histories, the reader is also made privy to information that has interpretive tension.
The dress set off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties, and the tightly fitting basque showed breasts well matured for her sixteen years. The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor.
Bottom line, this girl is pretty. She is willful. She has beautiful eyes, a nice rack and the smallest waist in three counties. Even if one knows nothing of Scarlett O’Hara, a girl like this is bound to cause a stir! By parsing out facts about a character, along with the place and time in which they live, Mitchell’s players grow from types into individuals. By the end of page three, one has a very clear picture of Scarlet O’Hara and her two suitors, as well as the tonal inclination that will carry through the entire one-thousand page story. The Scarlett that Mitchell develops in the very beginning of her narrative is the microcosmic reflection of the entire novel’s scope, allowing the reader to experience The Old South through a personal and human portal.
From the beginning, it is necessary to immerse the reader in the physical world of the piece whether that world is as specific as the Empire Grill in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, or as sweeping as John Banfield’s The Sea. Author Alice LaPlante in The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, offers four characteristics of a good story opening: it establishes the tone, it immerses the reader in the physical world of the story, it introduces characters and situations, and it keeps the reader wondering “What happens next?” (468) Along with Ms. LaPlante’s commentary, I created a list based on the most helpful books I have read and one I highly recommend to all beginning writers, Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit. Primarily a book to encourage Macro and Micro editing habits, it provides great support and tangible items to consider in the self-editing process. From these two sources and observations of my own, I created the following list of ten questions to evaluate the first ten pages:
1. What happens in the first sentence: Where am I? Who am I with? What’s wrong?!
2. What happens in the first ten pages: How does it support the opening paragraph and the entry into the story? How intentionally narrow is the scope? A narrower scope, it turns out, creates a more tense beginning, similar to a narrow canyon creating river rapids.
3. Narrative POV: first, second or third person, and how close or how far the reader’s to the main character and the action.
4. Narrative Perspective: WHO is telling the story and how close are they to the reader? Is narrator neutral? Is narrator a character? Is narrator reliable? For instance. Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned is voiced by an awkward, first person narrator who is sure of his lowly role in his world giving the story an immediate and present feeling. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight is also in the first person, in the form of the main character’s diary, giving it a more distant feel.
5. Language: Is it suitable to the events, agreeable, high falutin’? Are there too many adjectives? Are the verbs active enough to suit the plotted action?
6. Setting: How quickly is the reader grounded in a location and then, what is wrong with this picture? The chafing of character against setting creates the majority conflict. (This, as it turns out, became an important discovery.)
7. Character: Who are they in relation to setting? Do they belong? Are they in the right place at the wrong time? Visa versa?
8. Structure: Does the rhythm, tension and tone support the setting, characters and conflict?
9. Prologue or Thematic Preamble: How does the author attempt to focus or divert the reader’s attention at the opening of the story?
10. Plot Expectations beyond page ten: Based on the first ten pages, what did I expect to occur farther along in the story. Not an exercise in clairvoyance, but an attempt to see how clearly the author set me up for the story’s telling. This was challenging with unfamiliar material, but a whole lot of fun and started some interesting blog comments.
Within the first few lines of a novel, an authorial voice – the sound the reader hears – forms in the reader’s consciousness. This voice defines the level of reliability between the reader, the narrator and the story. It designates the amount of intimacy passing between reader and narrator. It also establishes an elusive plasticity through which the reader passes in and out of the story. Notice the difference in style and tone when reading even the short excerpts presented in this paper from the tone of the paper itself. Notice what happens to your sense of serenity as you leave an analytical construct and slip into the opening moments of a fiction, as you enter the unfamiliar.
Consider the authorial voice in these first few lines of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road or Richard Russo’s Empire Falls or Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and how they draw the reader into the story. Notice how location and character are woven together in these three uniquely different openings.
When he awoke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.
The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory.
It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads.
Without much else but a sampling of language and sentence construction, a reader is alerted to situation and perspective coupled with character and place. In the woods; the Empire Grill and not a street, each give a reader an immediate perspective on a character in a particular location, as well as a strong suggestion of narrative authority. In the second example, from Empire Falls, the reader is placed, in the first few words, into what will become the main character’s home base. Further, the grill itself is in the center of the decaying town of Empire Falls, Maine, which is central to the book with its themes of community, rise and fall, and regeneration. With specific, yet evocative word choices – Grill, Falls, Empire – the reader is alerted to a once productive town that has fallen into mediocrity.
The examples from The Road and Falling Man respectively, are less specific yet equally strong indicators of place. “…in the woods” immediately directs the reader to conjure from their own experiences what a “woods” experience might be. An unknown “He” waking “…in the dark and cold of the night…” clues the reader to apply their own imagined impressions of how these cold, dark, woods would feel and how they affect the man and the child. As the storyteller introduces “He” and “Child”, the reader is inducted into an unspecified place that is partially of the reader’s improvisation.
The Road is set in a post apocalyptic future nine or ten years after “the bomb”. The author compels the reader to co-create this environment by utilizing natural aspects familiar to a modern reader such as tree, cold, asphalt, house, shopping cart and deconstruct them into foreign objects unsuitable for modern use. A contemporary reader’s familiarity with a shopping cart is as part of the shopping experience, to use and discard as one pleases. If a wheel sticks, one selects another from an abundant supply. In McCarthy’s eerily quiet but deadly world a shopping cart takes on the onus of a pack mule or a homeless person’s mobile home; one broken wheel is to forfeit all one’s stores, an extreme liability spelling doom.
On a microcosmic level, a good story opening reflects the entirety of a story’s scope. The tone that is established at the beginning must continue through to the end. Don DeLillo’s novel utilizes similar emotional tones with his opening lines that grow to a greater resonance through to the end of the book. In its deficit projection of what the street no longer is, the reader is swirled in a time / space / ash continuum where everybody is a “Falling Man.” Even if the reader does not have the luxury of the book’s mysterious cover art – twin towers disappearing into clouds – or the powerful live media representations that followed September 11, 2001, DeLillo prepares the reader for something equally catastrophic as McCarthy has at the beginning of The Road. Like an acorn that has the entire necessary DNA to become an Oak, the opening pages of a novel contain a similar DNA to carry the reader through to the fully developed ending of a story.
What gets a story going, I found, is the juxtaposition of character against setting. In the popular teen-vampire series, Twilight, the narrator, who is also the main character, Bella, is placed in an unfamiliar physical location from which plot emerges. Setting influencing character, creating tension. The outcome is plot. This is a classic set up to start a story. Bella in her familiar hometown of Phoenix, results in status quo, equals, no story. When placed her in an unfamiliar place, her new home of Forks, Washington, environmental tension (and vampires) occurs and plot ensues.
The first three paragraphs of Richard Amory’s Song of the Loon offer a simple illustration. The first paragraph describes a brilliant river-forest setting. The second paragraph describes a muscular, copper-headed man paddling up a river. The third paragraph unfolds as the canoeing man is drawn to shore by the sound of a wooden flute and into the, strong arms of Singing Heron. One. Two. Three. Setting is presented, character is produced, and the influence of setting upon character creates tension via choice. Woods + man in woods + unusual sound of flute in woods = tension and discovery, which unfold into plot.
A story’s beginning is a crucial indicator of how the reader will navigate through to the end. Consider the enduring success of Agatha Christie, Queen of the Murder Mystery, who said, “Only give out enough information to keep the reader involved. A story is a beginning, not the beginning.” It is important to offer the reader enough information to keep them interested, but not so much as to overwhelm or confuse them. Remaining intentionally narrow focuses the reader’s attention on the narrative track. It informs the reader, from the beginning, how the journey will progress for the next couple of hundred pages. As Ursela LeGuin indicates, the door one passes through to gain entry to this new world must follow through to satisfaction. The door presented to the reader must represent the story being presented. If a reader feels they’ve been baited and then switched, they’ll stop reading. If the reader figures out ‘who done it’ before the narrator does, there’s no more mystery in the murder. It is also true that in order to ensure a front-to-back reading, an author’s story should be full of surprises. If a reader knows what’s coming next, they’ll stop.
When considering which doorway to draw the reader through it is interesting to see how different authors use setting and character to produce tension and plot. In the case of The Road, it is a generic man in the woods with a sleeping child. The initial tension is revealed when the reader learns that the man is not in the woods by choice and is in great danger every moment. The opening situation mirrors the story’s ongoing conflict arising from the constant chaffing of character (father and son) against setting (ruined remains of former society) against circumstances (nothing to eat and everyone wants to eat them). The result? Tension and conflict are created as character and place become irreconcilable. The constant tension of McCarthy’s story is the square peg of need unable fit in the round hole of lack. What lends relevance to the seemingly simple situation of a father checking on his sleeping child on a cold, dark night is how the storyteller pushes natural act against unnatural setting.
Eighty-five percent of novels I read follow a classic model that establish setting at the onset. As in the Song of the Loon example, character follows setting which create tension and events. Setting is the imaginary portal that carries the reader, via narrative, from their world into the world of the story. Eighty-five percent of the novels I reviewed introduced a literal, particular or socio-economic setting early in the first paragraph and often in the first two sentences. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina it is the Oblonsky household. In Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die it is on a BOAC Stratocruiser. In One Hundred Years of Solitude it is “facing the firing squad.”
Of the remaining fifteen percent, ten of those imply a setting that is greatly affected by the narrator’s perception or conflicted mental state, as in the beginning of Falling Man or in Tod Goldberg’s Living Dead Girl. Goldberg’s narrator places the reader in the midst of a vague, haunting memory, which eventually leads the narrator to recall, “…the last time I was home.” As the narrator is emotionally homeless, the reader is cued to imagine an anti-home setting in a home-less anthropological construct. This lack-of-home, ungrounded state resonates throughout each of the characters of Goldberg’s story and is a theme in many of his works.
The popular children’s tale, Stuart Little by E.B. White, is in the fifteen percent that introduces character over place. The strange combination of characters in the Little family introduces tension by exploiting the reality of a mouse born into a human, urban family against the reader’s understanding of how urban humans typically react to mice. Usually with traps or poison. In the first paragraph, the storyteller takes hold of the reader’s attention by casually presenting Stuart Little’s birth into a human family:
When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse.
With a generous helping of suspension of disbelief and a childlike curiosity for how this infant will survive to maturity, the reader is less involved in discovering the setting of this incongruous family relationship and more with the nonchalance with which the family relationship occurs. Mice are ubiquitous to human activity. A mouse living with humans, as human, is very rare, indeed. And yet, there are several potential considerations playing on the reader’s mind that the author leaves to the reader’s imagination, such as, is this taking place in a regular house or in a mouse nest? Is the mouse/child in a crib or a matchbox? The narrator, in his earnest fashion, places the story in “America…where unusual happenings are rare.” He creates tension by holding the facts of Stuart Little’s coming into the world against the reader’s accustomed grasp of reality. Stuart is integrated into the family as if having a mouse for a son is not unusual.
The storyteller is staking a reader’s general bias toward mice to produce an initial conflict in a similar way that DeLillo, in the evocative opening narrative of Falling Man, relies upon a reader’s memory and understanding of the events of 9/11 to supply certain images that, as a media watching public, most readers can conjure from memory. In both examples the storyteller relies upon a reader’s experience of reality outside the story to accompany circumstances within the story.
A unique five percent of story beginnings, fall into a category best represented by Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, where the narrator is in no particular or stated physical location. The character is so absorbed in himself that setting is a non-existent feature. It is interesting to note how this ratio, 85-10-5, reflects similarly to Kinsey’s and Masters and Johnson’s breakdown of social collectiveness in humans and animals. In the case of Kinsey’s studies of human sexuality and sexual preference, eighty-five percent of respondents followed a heterosexual norm, ten percent crossed over between hetero and homo-sexual preferences and the remaining five percent were strictly homo. This sociological 85-10-5 distribution also happens to mirror what happens at the racetrack or in the casino, where eighty-five percent of gamblers lose, ten percent break-even, and five percent win, which has a great deal to say about how individual habits mirror human nature and explains all those big buildings in Las Vegas.
As human beings, we come from a long tribal history of living close to the earth, close to the crops we cultivated and the animals we raised or hunted. Socio-integration was vital to the safety and continuation of the clan. If one was not part of the tribe he was part of the outside. Aligning oneself to a tribal place was a specific way to gain audience allegiance to a storyteller’s character and narration. Commonly known settings made a story accessible. In the most recent couple of hundred years man has migrated to densely populated areas and created communal identities on a very large scale. Instead of being a member of “the green clan,” we have assumed the identity of Cleveland, London or Beijing, which has grown to represent large masses of individuals. In order to introduce narrative specificity and individual character as defining features, storytellers initiated the stratified fifteen percent that focus first on a character’s lack of recognizable place in order to focus on the individual’s interior complexity.
In the case of A Wild Sheep Chase. Murakami’s placeless, narrative conversation occurs in the relative non-setting of “it.” As a style, this five percent is more challenging to enter, as if the narrated character has not acknowledged the presence of a listener, or reader in this case:
It was a short one-paragraph item in the morning edition. A friend rang me up and read it to me. Nothing special. Something a rookie reporter fresh out of college might’ve written for practice.
The date, a street corner, a person driving a truck, a pedestrian, a casualty, an investigation of possible negligence.
Sounded like one of those poems on the inner flap of a magazine.
“Where’s the funeral?” I asked.
“You got me,” he said. “Did she even have a family?”
What is unusual about Murakami’s first, eight-page chapter is that the unnamed character who narrates the story of a dead girl, doesn’t seem to be actually involved with his own life story. He is literally narrating from his past without making reference to himself. Neither does he illuminate the reader to other helpful monuments within his narrative; such as where he is, to whom he is speaking, or what he is doing while he narrates the story of this unnamed, dead, former girlfriend. In doing so, the characters exist as random mental notations and emotional reminiscences,
Of course, strictly speaking, she didn’t sleep with just anyone. She had standards. Still, the fact of the matter is, as any cursory examination of the evidence would suffice to show, that she was quite willing to sleep with almost any guy.
The reader is given a date stamp of October 25, 1970. Tokyo is referred to, soon after. The remaining where or what, time or place, are generic as if to suggest a sense of uniformity and interchangeability about the characters and their situations. Soon after and from out of the blue, we learn that the girl anticipates she,
“…is going to live to be twenty-five,” she said, “then die.”
July, eight years later, she was dead at twenty-six.”
With this, the story circles back to the obituary and the strange, foreign-feeling beginning.
All characters relate to the place they inhabit, whether they enjoy the place or not. Even if that place is completely foreign to the reader, it tells the reader how to relate to the character within the imaginative world of the story. As readers of fictional literature, we are predominantly human beings with critical responses to particular places and events that occur in familiar locations. Most fictional characters exist with human characteristics. Even in fantastical scenarios, robots, trees or barnyard animals exhibit human traits and emotions. As humans, we view the world and our place in it, not visa versa. Even the most self-centered or megalomaniacal personalities, who view themselves as the center of the universe, require a universe in which to be the center of. People relate differently depending on where they encounter each other. A reader relates to a character as defined by the world it inhabits. Character development within the author’s chosen world lends credence and a more detailed picture of that character’s social, economic and worldviews; Captain Ahab exists on a ship, not in a stagecoach; Scarlett O’Hara in colonial rural Georgia; Dorothy Gale lands in OZ, not the Riviera Hotel in Palm Springs.
In addition to setting, character and plot told via an authorial voice with narrative intention, there exists a circular story action common to the opening pages of many full-length fictional works. For lack of a better name, I call it Thematic Preamble to which the author makes callbacks throughout the story, in much the same way a composer uses leitmotif or standup comics call back reminders of successful jokes. A Thematic Preamble is usually two to four pages, although it can be much shorter, and focuses on a main character, a parallel story or a topic. In John Irving’s The Cider House Rules where, like a fable handed down from generation to generation, the preamble illuminates the naming process at St. Cloud’s orphanage where Homer Wells will be born in the next few pages. A Thematic Preamble is different from a prologue in that the preamble contains action and plot that contributes to the story’s narrative throughline. Most prologues introduce relative or parallel information that stands alone from the “real” story. In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight there is an exciting one page prologue of the narrator being stalked by her would-be murderer. This precedes about one hundred and fifty pages of “Good God, will something please happen!” Carson McCullers, in the thematic preamble of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, gives the reader a three-page overview of a typical day between two deaf and mute men before the story settles down to a slower pace with more specific personal information. One could compare a Thematic Preamble to the overture of a musical or operetta in that it prepares the reader with the sound and style of an author’s tone, without tasking the reader to remember specific details crucial to character or plot development. If one re-read the opening after enjoying the entire book, it would seem obvious that the author is providing more than just a moment to unwrap ones candy or bring one’s mind into reading mode. The Thematic Preamble is a platform from which major thematic elements are planted. In the case of Homer Wells and the orphanage in St. Cloud’s, the question of name, social position and the relation of father to son are constant, recurring questions of Irving’s work. Irving also establishes a subtle paradox in the setting, the town of “St. Cloud’s.” St. Cloud’s is a proper noun and possessive. It is as if the town has ownership over Homer and all the boys born there. Homer is the inferred possession of the orphanage itself; a St. Cloud’s boy.
Popular theory states there are only three story types: man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. Man appears in each case,
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Consider Dickens classically balanced opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. With its rhythmic swing, the reader is drawn into the novel’s large thematic questions as well as acquainted what will drive the action: England versus France; Love versus Oppression; Family versus Hatred and more specifically Mr. Darney versus Madame Defarge. While Dickens doesn’t specify setting in his stylized opening paragraph, there was great public awareness around the larger events of the day. As in 9/11 and Falling Man, Dicken’s subtle indications became metaphor for the individual dramas and how they took place before a large public and historical backdrop.
In her chapter, “On Thinking Small” in The Making of a Story, author Alice LaPlante stresses how concrete details are the lifeblood of good writing, “…you won’t see the forest unless you see this tree and that tree and that tree.” (107) Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, also stresses the need to “think small”: “Often, if the triggering subject is big (love, death, faith) rather than localized and finite, the mind tends to shrink. Sir Alexander Fleming observed some mold, and a few years later, we had a cure for gonorrhea. But what if the British government had told him to find a cure for gonorrhea? He might have worried so much he would not have noticed the mold. Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself. If you can’t think small, try philosophy or social criticism.” (7)
In the notes of his unfinished manuscript for The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in capital letters, “ACTION IS CHARACTER.” Stahr, the character around whom the action evolves, is the head of a Hollywood film studio and a major player in the early movie business. Each of Stahr’s movements and decisions cause a chain of events that resonate throughout the Hollywood circle of influence affecting, not only Stahr, but each of the story’s other characters.
Even when a character is not a main character, they still drive the action of their own story and the story as a whole. Neither Nick Carroway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, nor Rosemary Hoyt, the young actress and object of desire in Tender is the Night, are central characters of their respective stories. Yet, when they have the opportunity to influence the main character against his destruction, they choose inaction, taking the road of least confrontation. Their inaction, a reflection of character deficit and Fitzgerald’s commentary of the American mindset of the time, contributes to each protagonist’s downfall. In each of their cases these characters act to avoid action, defining them by what they do, versus who they are.
The Catcher in the Rye is a character first story, similar to Stuart Little or The Great Gatsby, in that Holden Caulfield, as both narrator and main character, he is so overwhelmed by his situation that even after a lengthy preamble, excusing himself from disclosing anything of worth or value about himself, proceeds to narrate his story, as if speaking to an unseen interviewer. Like the narrator in Mirakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, J.D. Salinger’s narrator begins with the assumption that we already know the gist of his story and that we are comfortable entering his narrative in progress. The opening paragraph serves as a thematic preamble, a warm up of sorts, allowing Caulfield to settle in before getting down to the facts of his tale. The ensuing paragraph puts the reader onto more solid ground by introducing a verifiable setting to offset the potential unreliability of Caulfield as narrator on the facts of his life,
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”
Caulfield’s introduction runs parallel to his need for constant movement and entertainment. He is lost, but he is guided by his need for experiences, even juvenile ones. Caulfield is always narrating his story, even if he is incapable of representing himself accurately.
An author does not have to be gifted to write a good story. An author must be consistent and true to the world they create. Regardless of what the story is about, everything must relate back to the larger themes set up at the beginning. A reader should be able to finish a book, turn back to the beginning and see how the ending was set up in the first few pages. It is the author’s job to be as narrow and specific as possible, while providing as full and descriptive a world as necessary. It is imperative for the author to constantly refine his work for consistency. Promise an entire world, provide only what is essential to the story being narrated. Good stories move toward a good ending. Good stories don’t reveal the ending. Good storytelling keeps within a narrow bandwidth, otherwise it falls apart searching for new material. Surprise and discovery are excellent devices, but without consistent threads that support the narrative a story spins out beyond the scope of the story’s reality. Consider the relatively narrow motivating force that affects all the characters, tensions and their resulting actions in Gone With the Wind, “I want what I want because I deserve it… because I want it.”
I am acutely aware of how my blood pressure changes as a story’s authorial voice settles into my consciousness. As I feel the story wash over me, as the narrator and I become increasingly acquainted, my body gives over to the authority the narrator has over events and an intimate triangle is created between reader, narrator and story being created. First person narrators, such as the narrators in Twilight, Lolita and Mrs. Dalloway are particularly good at creating this intimate bond, whether they are reliable or not. They create an elusive plasticity through which the reader passes in and out of the story.
So, what did I learn by reading all these different first ten pages? Most obviously, novels are about character, even if that character is a kitchen sink, but they are about place first. Place is the springboard from which the reader understands the character’s relationship to the world and how the reader creates their relationship to the characters in the story.
Make inconsistencies facts. It will create future tension. Start narrow and stay narrow in order to maximize credibility within the bandwidth of believability created by the narrator, for instance Holden Caulfield keeps his narration within the narrow bandwidth of “I’m not going to tell you anything I don’t want to…” or in One Hundred Years of Solitude the main character opens the story “facing the firing squad” in the same way that the entire country is facing destruction and yet miraculously continues living on and on.
Implicate! With how few words can a writer create a place and characters using as much implication as possible? Budding writers tend to explain far more than necessary. Don’t.
Be specific over being descriptive. It will broaden the reader’s ability to co-create the story with the narrator, as the media images and the events of 9/11 co-created a reader’s experience of Falling Man.
Ignore what I think the reader needs to know. Instead, enmesh and entangle place and character, force the character to choose. Forcing change, by putting the characters in a position to choose, raises tension. Ignore the desire to describe until description supports conflict within the narrative.
Break down each sentence to see how it supports the whole. If the acorn of the opening pages grows into a Maple, something is terribly wrong.
Without characters who do something, there is no forward movement; without movement, no action; no action, no plot. “A bad beginning makes for a bad ending,” wrote Euripides, and indeed it is critical to know how to raise the curtain on a story. Mama Rose in the Broadway musical Gypsy, says, “If you have a great ending they’ll forgive you for anything,” and while it may be true of production numbers and fireworks pageants, it is unlikely that a reader will hang-out with dull material for a couple hundred pages on the off-chance of a spectacular finish.
“Begin every story in the middle,” says Louis L’Amour, King of the Great American Western. Chekhov told young writers to tear up the first three pages of what they had written in order to begin with a sense of momentum. In medias res, said Horace. L’Amour says it plainer. “The reader doesn’t care how it begins; he just wants to get on with it.” So what happens next? Get on with it!
1. Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell. 1936. 1,035 pages. First 10 pages = .97% of total story.
2. The Road. Cormic McCarthy. 2006. 285 pages. First 10 pages = 3.51% of total story.
3. Empire Falls. Richard Russo. 2001. 483 pages. First 10 pages = 2.07% of total story.
4. Falling Man. Don DiLillo. 2007. 244 pages. First 10 pages = 4.1% of total story.
5. Stuart Little. E.B. White. 1945. 138 pages. First 10 pages = 7.25% of total story.
6. Wild Sheep Chase. Haruki Murakami. 1989. 353 pages. First 10 pages = 2.83% of total story.
7. A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Dickens. 1859. 412 pages. First 10 pages = 2.43% of total story.
8. The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger. 1951. 277 pages. First 10 pages = 3.64% of total story.
Bryan Burch is a recent MFA graduate of University California Riverside – Palm Desert low residency Creative Writing program. He is co-editor of THE WHISTLING FIRE online journal and continues to contribute to his website www.first10pages.com.