I’m going to start off with a disclaimer. This post is for writers pursuing publication. If you write for a hobby, that’s awesome. You can do whatever you like. If you’re writing for publication, there are some things you may want to consider in order to enhance your chances of landing that agent and book deal. This isn’t meant to stifle anyone’s creativity; this is strictly guidance. Take it if you think it’s useful, but discard it if you think it’s not. Either way, I hope it gets you thinking about your story, which is always a good thing.
The first twenty-five pages of a story are extremely important. A writer has to hook the reader, introduce the conflict, and move an entire story and plot forward. This is no easy task. Because of the amount of queries agents and editors receive, they are only able to read a sample to see if they’re interested. Maybe they’ll read the first chapter, two chapters, twenty-five pages? It depends. Then based on those pages, they’ll either request more pages or pass. Hopefully the magnitude of the first twenty-five pages has sunk in.
One of my go to books on beginnings is Hooked by Les Edgerton. Edgerton say, “An opening scene has ten core components: (1) the inciting incident; (2) the story-worthy problem; (3) the initial surface problem; (4) the setup; (5) backstory; (6) a stellar opening sentence; (7) body language; (8) character; (9) setting; and (10) foreshadowing,” (page 23).
If you’re newly starting out, and you want to look for some examples, go to the bookstore and look at current releases—I’m talking books released in the last one to three years. Read over the first thirty pages of books in the genre you’re interested in writing. The reason I say to look at current books for reference is because the publishing industry is forever changing. What was acceptable ten (even five) years ago may not be acceptable today. Of course you can take books that are wildly successful that don’t have these things in the first twenty-five, but you can’t always take the exception as an example for the norm.
One of the most important parts of the beginning is the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the action that pushes the story forward. I’ve heard some industry professionals say they’d like for this to happen anywhere from the first seven pages to the first twenty-five. It’s important to understand what the inciting incident of a story is. It doesn’t always have to be a car wreck or a murder (although it very well could be). But it can be subtler than that. I know I said you shouldn’t use exceptions as examples for the norm, but since the wildly successful books are the ones most people are familiar with, I’m going to use two big name books as examples. Harry Potter. The inciting incident in Harry Potter is when the first letter to Hogwarts is delivered to Harry. This happens on page thirty-four. That’s not far off from the first thirty pages. Let’s look at another one. The Hunger Games. The inciting incident of this story is on page twenty, when Primrose Everdeen’s name is chosen during the reaping. It’s important for the reader to care about the characters and to be emotionally invested in them enough to care about what happens to them, so when you introduce the inciting incident, the reader will follow your character on their journey.
I could talk about beginnings for a very long time. This is just skimming the surface. Hopefully it entices you to go research and read more to improve your craft.
In honor of our one year anniversary at Hugs and Chocolate, and for our February workshops, I’m offering a twenty-five page critique to one of the followers. All you have to do is follow the blog and leave a comment and make sure to include your email address. The winner will be chosen using random.org, and they will be notified via email. The critique opportunity is open until Friday, February 15, 2013.