Monday, September 14, 2015

The 3 Most Important Things An Author Must Include on Page 1 (An Opinion)

I am a born snob.

I'm not particularly proud of it, and it's something that I don't readily admit to. Why? Because, my snobbishness, no matter how much I try to gloss over and conceal it like a ripe pimple in the middle of a forehead, it too will become rather uncomfortably obvious the longer people hang around me.

Personally, I don't think this trait has benefited me in any obvious way. I mean, it's not like it's indispensable for my survival.

Dungeon Master: "As you walk along the forest path, a Level 40 Werebear emerges from a briar of Mulberry bushes with plus 10 armor, and a level 12 Bastard Sword. What do you do?
Me: "I use my Level 8 Wand of Patronizing."
DM: (rolls d20) "I'm sorry, I forget. Did you say you had The Ring of Contrariness?"
Me: "Yes...I"
DM: "Ah, well the Werebear chomps your head off like you were a chocolate bunny, and uses your wand for a toothpick. Wanna order a pizza?"

While being a snob has put me into more sticky situations than has got me out of them, and might in fact be a liability for me, I think it has helped in the development of my taste...or not... I mean, like with most things, there are "at best" and "at worst" scenarios.

At best, a writer can open whole new worlds to legions of readers. At worst, he can be a cantankerous, reclusive troll who lives in his pajamas and only comes outside to forage for walnuts and billy goats (true story).

At best, a werebear is a fierce defender against the forces of evil, and won't bother you too much. At worst...well... you could catch him "in a mood".

At worst, being a snob might be interpreted by other people as being an elitist swine who could give a flying fork about the misery of others. At best, hey... at least they know where the best place to grab a nosh is. At worst, snobbishness won't save your life. At best, it will enhance it.

As it applies to me, I don't care that off-brand mac 'n cheese is 10 for a buck, I will shell out the extra 20 cents to get Kraft Dinner. I don't care if the American pressing of XTC's "Skylarking" is more readily available. I will go out of my way to find the British one, because the arrangement of the tracks make better sense on it. If you've ever heard it, I'm sure you'd agree.

If it's a book that is new to me, maybe I heard about it in passing, and I know I should be reading it. Or, if I'm perusing the new releases at a library or book shop, and a clever title or cover catches my eye, there are a few things that have to be taken into consideration before I make the effort to take it home with me. Like I said before, I'm not particularly proud of my snobbishness, and I should be keeping an open mind especially when it comes to literature, but (I LIKE my comfort zone) I have been burned before. Many times have a bought or borrowed a book based solely on the jacket blurb, only to fall asleep in my own drool puddle before I reach page 5.

I know better now. I have rules that I go by before I read a book for pleasure. Not only do I follow these rules for reading, I try to be conscious of them while I construct my first pages for my own stories as well. If you want to hook me, engage me, turn me into a raging, unwashed fanboy, make me want to get all of your previous work, then you, the author, need to keep these 3 things in mind when making your first page.
Courtesy Writers Write Creative Blog

1. Conflict

I mean, it should go without saying, right?

An argument yelled in hushed tones in some booth in a franchise restaurant.

A gun battle between intergalactic settlers and hostile alien forces.

Someone can't get their car started.

A face gets slapped.

Throw me in the middle of things. No backstory, no set up, no warning. just sweep me up in something and let me figure out what's going on. Having trouble establishing scene one, act one? Start with an argument. Need to set the atmosphere? Start with a bar fight. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Himself, doesn't matter. I would much rather stumble across a fight, than a narrator droning, "It was a dark and stormy night..."

Starting with your climax is always a trusty trope if your story is more motivated by action; (After days of pushing back, the alien horde had us outnumbered and outgunned. We were at the brink of defeat). A slow and steady build works too (Unrecognizable at first. Barely audible over the cheap, classic rock musak piped in through the restaurant's sound system. The steady wasp sting assonance of an angry couple in the throes in their angry game of sticks and stones rose, crested, and fell in the dimly lit booth at the back of the place. Quiet enough to not make a scene, but just loud enough to let everyone else in that section know what was going on. Tonight is their anniversary.) It could be bullets flying, or someone not getting the Pumpkin Spice Latte that they ordered. Show me something being diametrically opposed to something else, it will almost guarantee that I will be coming along with you for the ride.

An example that immediately leaps to mind is Luc Besson's "Léon: The Professional". The movie opens with guns literally blazing, and doesn't let up until about 10 minutes later, where it would be possible, in theory, to end the movie right there. It's a complete action movie, boiled down into a short: Hero enters heavily guarded fortress, gets bad guy, and the day is saved. The movie, for all intents and purposes, had every right to end right there. It was exciting enough, a story was told, good guy wins in the end. It could have ended there...but it didn't. Instead, we get a snapshot of what the hero is like when he isn't shooting people. He's a lonely sort, living quietly, privately, simply. Every so often, taking in a classic movie.

Perhaps were it another character in the hands of another story teller or director or studio, the hero might have spent his leisure time driving expensive, foreign cars at break neck speeds down congested straightaways while snorting coke off a hooker's back as something disgusting from The Offspring blares in the background (it was '94, by the way...getting sidetracked). But that didn't happen. In fact, the action went in the exact opposite direction I thought it would have. And since I, like others who were fed a steady diet of 80s action flicks, did not expect such nuance, it was a welcome was a surprise, and a critical darling. They could have had the protagonist be some misogynist jerk with a gun fetish, but no. He's a quiet man, living a quiet life, drinking milk and taking care of his Aglaonema. It was a character going against type, and I wanted to know more about him. I mean, sure, you could find hints of this character in certain westerns, and a few samurai films, but it was a refreshing thing to see. It's still one of my favorites.

2. Dialog 

"Wait, what? It can't be that simple."
"Dialog? That's it?"
"Yeah. What's wrong with that?"
"Well, geez! Just about every book has dialog on the first page. I was expecting you to come up with something a little more uncommon, ya know?"
"Good point, but I'm talking about a specific type of dialog."
"Oh, you mean like a Tarantino-esque type of dialog where two people engage in a discussion containing long streams of blue language with a crap ton of pop culture references folded in?"
"You know me so well."
"Right? I mean, it's almost as if we were created by the same person."

*stares back at reader*

"No, seriously. The dialog I'm talking about is when it's as if the reader is...what's the word... eavesdropping on a conversation."
"Oh! You mean like where two people reveal who they through conversation without any intervention by the author?"
"Exactly. I mean the temptation is always there for the writer to go on and on with describing the location."
"Not that there's anything wrong with that."
"Not that there's anything wrong with that."
"You're right. I mean yeah, you're going to want to show people around with a few paragraphs or so of descriptive narrative, but it's so much better just to..."
"...just to let the characters do the talking."
"Yeah... so, ready to get the body out of the trunk?"

3. Answer One Question...

Don't get me wrong, you could splatter the entire first page with sparkly objects and pretty explosions. You could have the most interesting person in the world fly off to the most interesting things in the world. It could be the end existence, it could be the beginning of another. It could be a moment of quiet introspection.

Honestly, I might have given the wrong impression here. Every novel I read doesn't have to start with the protagonist strapped down to an operating table while the evil Dr. Whatshisnuts slowly guides a frickin' laser beam toward his junk. I would quickly get bored if everything started off like that. To be sure, I have fallen head over heals with some stories that begin so quietly, and so sublimely that the sheer gravity of the narrative itself pulls me in, and keeps me there. So, if it's not bombastic action, or unattended dialog, what else is important to be included on the front page?

I might sound like I have high expectations, and it might also sound like I hold authors up to very high standards. But that's not true. Everyone gets a fair shot... unless you're E L James, then I'm sorry, I just don't have time for you.

The biggest thing that is important to me that I see on the front page is the author answer to one question:

Why am I here?

Make me care. Give me a reason, or at least a hint of one. I'm not saying to front load everything and not save anything for later. Doing that just lets everyone in the world that you're bad in bed. Your story is important. You made the effort to write it down, edit it, sweat, bleed, and lose sleep over it. You sought out people to help you publish this, and make it a reality. You lost even more sleep in promoting your story. You've bargained your life to be at this very moment. Your story is important, and you need me to read this.

Now, convince me to flip to page 2.

Grab me in the first sentence, I'll see where the paragraph goes.

Take me to the end of the paragraph, and I'll be breezing through the first few pages.

Bring me to page 10, and I'm taking you home.

This is just a snapshot of what how I feel at the moment. Thanks to Writers Write Creative Blog for the idea. To all the readers and writers out there, I'd like to know: what are your 3 most important things?