How long does it take for you to know if you like a book?
More importantly, how long before you realize you don’t like it?
Years ago I attended a screenwriting workshop conducted by a national award winning screenwriter. The course was excellent and in many ways, eye-opening. One of the many things that have stayed with me from that 5 day workshop is the importance of the first 10 pages of your screenplay, the first 10 minutes of your film.
It applies equally to a book, the first 10 pages is your best ammo to get a reader glued.
The first 10 pages are the first 3000 – 3500 words of your novel and it is sometimes only halfway into your first chapter.
10 pages, that’s all you get.
Thankfully, that’s all you need. More on that later, let’s now look at the first 10 pages. For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider the first 10 pages to be your first chapter.
Your first chapter is KEY. It represents the whole book. And if your first chapter doesn’t grab the reader, you may not get the benefit of being read.
Imagine a reader browsing a local bookstore:
Step 1: He heads to titles stacked under his favourite genre (thrillers, romance, etc)
Step 2: Starts reading the back cover of books (randomly or based on titles he likes)
Step 3: Opens the book to page 1 and starts reading a few pages
If you clear the first two rounds, that is you happen to write in a genre he likes and you have a good book description on the back cover, then you better have a power packed first 10 pages.
No one is going to read more than 10 pages in a casual browsing, in fact you’d be lucky if someone reads though 10 pages, it is usually within 3 – 4 pages that a book is discarded or rushed to the billing counter.
It’s not different in the virtual world. After the book description, the sample chapter decides it all.
10 pages, that’s all you get.
Now that you know the deal, let’s see how best you can use those 10 pages and what’s expected of you.
- Move it.
The first 10 pages cannot be passive. It’s all about movement, all about action. I purposely added movement before action, because some writers take the word action literally and start off with an outlandish outburst or a crime or just crash a car for fun’s sake and then start their novel a mile from the action. Movement is action, don’t describe the weather or ramble about the “play of light and shadows filtering through autumn leaves”, you will have enough time to do it later (if you must).
If you must start with mundane description, let it lead somewhere. Look at Raymond Chandler’s starting lines for The Big Sleep
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
84 words into the book and you can’t wait to read it.
- Set the tone
The genre and tone of the novel must be clear to the reader from the start. This might appear formulaic but it works well. Adventure novels start with action, romance and romantic comedies focus on introducing the main characters and the many (comical) problems in their life, thrillers and whodunits often start with a crime.
Consider any romance novel and see how it starts with the central problem and then immediately goes to the central character. Or think of private detective novels that start with a client coming to the detective’s door or a letter/call summoning the detective to a place where a crime has taken place or is about to take place. These are examples of genre familiarity, it’s a comforting warm blanket that ardent fans of the genre crave. You’d do good to provide it to them.
The tone must be set from the start.
Whatever the focus of your novel, must be the focus of your first chapter.
- Employ the Hook
The HOOK is the inciting incident close to the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention and prods him to read on. It must create urgency in the reader, the immediate need to know how this situation described plays out or is resolved.
Sometimes you know how it’s resolved but you want to know how it plays out. Consider Erich Segal’s master opening in his most popular work, Love Story:
“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?
That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.”
So you know the girl who loves the narrator dies, you want to know how it plays out.
The hook is usually the major problem or the major situation, in many cases however, the hook is just a minor problem that leads the hero or protagonist into his most important bind and that resolution forms the crux of your story.
Consider Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, the murder of curator Jacques Saunière sets in motion the events where the main problem is protecting the Holy Grail from falling into the wrong hands.
Not every story can start with a murder but it must start with something dramatic. Hooks in romance novels are particularly jarring if not done well. They often start with dramatic events like funerals and accidents that have nothing to do with the actual story.
The HOOK has to be closely connected to the story, it must be integral to the plot. Consider the starting lines of Beth Thompson’s romance novel, Ants on Peonies (Disclosure: I am the developmental editor for this book)
Ants on a Peony. That’s all my mother could think when she looked at my bandaged head, propped on several pillows and tethered by tubes to a square metal box that burped out numbers.
As I drifted in and out of consciousness, she imagined that my brain had been invaded by foreign entities that were blocking my ability to act or think normally. Glossy, black ants munching their way across the curled buds of June’s favorite flower.
Do ants help or hinder the peony? She’d heard arguments for both sides, but couldn’t remember the definitive answer.
“Given the precarious state you were in, I finally decided I was entitled to believe whatever I wanted,” she told me much later. “So, I chose the former.”
Even as she recounts this story 30 years on, there is a hum of incredulity in her voice as if she, a mere mortal, could get away with that kind of thinking – having her way with the Lord God’s ideas of righteousness and all.
She makes me shake my head, my mother. Maggie Scott, a remarkable woman living an unremarkable life. Not so different from many folks I know, except in one blinding, shield-your-eyes kind of way: She’s happy with her lot.
I suppose my life would have been easier if I’d bent to Divine Will – whatever the hell that is – more often. Not that knowing would have made much difference; godly things have inspired me less.
Less than a page into the book, you know the main character and how her life has shaped up, in another page you will know that this accident is the focus of her story.
A hook has to have clear connection to the story. Few things are as irritating as a forced hook.
- Introduce the Protagonist
You want the readers to care about the main character and his problems, the quicker he/she enters the scene the better. If you think it is not possible to have the protagonist enter within the first 10 pages, think again. Nine out of ten times, you will save yourself a convoluted storyline by starting it right and the only right start is with the protagonist.
Consider the brilliant opening of Double Indemnity:
I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers. It didn’t look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it was spilled up the hill any way they could get it in. You climbed some stone steps to the front door, so I parked the car and went up there. A servant poked her head out. “Is Mr. Nirdlinger in?”
Half a page! And you have a hook “this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers”, the main character is the narrator, you understand he is into selling insurance, and in another half a page you will be introduced to his selling acumen and the other principal character, Mrs. Nirdlinger.
If you haven’t read James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, grab a copy now. At less than 200 pages it is no frills storytelling at its best.
- Maintain Suspense
Long expositions on character or situations kill the tone. Keep it exciting and anticipative for your readers.
In the previous example of Erich Segal’s Love Story, the author doesn’t kill the suspense after telling you that the girl dies. He doesn’t say how she dies or how soon or what impact she had on his life. That’s the rest of the story, that’s for the reader to find out over the next 160 or so pages.
The first 10 pages of a novel must help readers get their bearings. Introduce your protagonist and maybe a couple of more characters, give them something to care or worry about, and don’t allow the tension to let up.
10 pages, that’s all you need.