The First Page
There’s a terrific book that I often recommend to young writers—The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Mr. Lukeman is a long-time agent, editor, and publisher. The thrust of his counsel is this:
Most agents and editors make up their minds about submissions within the first five pages. If they spot a single amateur mistake (excess adjectives, “your” instead of “you’re,” “it’s” instead of “its”), your manuscript goes straight into the trash.
Grind on those first five pages, says Mr. Lukeman. Make certain they are flawless.
I agree completely of course. But I would go further. The make-or-break page, to my mind, is Page One. Even more critical: Paragraph One.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …
The first paragraph, the first sentence is do-or-die. It has to be more than just free of error. It has to kick ass.
All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Those two opening sentences are from A Tale of Two Cities and Anna Karenina. I’ve abbreviated them to show that they still work, even when they’re cut off. A great opening can hook a reader in as few as three words.
Call me Ishmael.
Nor does a riveting opening have to be particularly literary, or display masterful erudition, or inform the reader that the hero of the tale has just woken up to discover that he has been turned overnight into a cockroach.
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 that before they had me, and all the David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
I think of Page One as a battlefield or a stage for seduction. The contest is between the writer and the reader. The reader comes to our first page, our first paragraph with two conflicting bents of mind. On the one hand, she wants nothing more than to be swept away. She wants to fall in love with our narrative. We’re Mr. Tambourine Man; she wants to be taken for a trip upon our magic swirling ship.
That’s Bent #1 in the reader’s mind. The second bent is pure suspicion. “Who is this writer anyway? Why should I trust him? How do I know he’s any good?” Even readers who have read other books we’ve written and loved them … even those true-blue fans are skeptical. “Yeah, he did it before, but how do I know this latest one doesn’t fall flat on its face?”
We have to win that battle, you and I, and we have to win it fast. We have to complete this seduction by Paragraph One, and certainly no later that Paragraph Two. Attention spans are short these days and getting shorter. Before that first Kindle page has flipped over, we better have either established our bona fides with the reader or charmed her or hypnotized her or got her curiosity going.
Here’s one trick. Start at the very beginning of your book and read down till you get to a sentence, or a run of sentences, that possess genuine magic. Then look back at the sentences that precede them. Can these sentences be cut? Cut them!
The legend is that Maxwell Perkins convinced Ernest Hemingway to get rid of the first two chapters of The Sun Also Rises. Not sentences or paragraphs. Chapters. He cut them till he got to this, at the start of what was originally Chapter Three.
Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed with that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing; in fact he disliked it. But he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing that he could knock down anyone who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym.
Never take the reader’s attention for granted. We have to earn it, you and I, and that ain’t easy. Is there a secret? None that I’ve found. We’ve got to keep striving for that magic, wherever and however we can find it.
What we want is for the reader to stop resisting, to set aside her skepticism and to embrace the tale we are about to tell her. We want her onboard willingly and with all her heart. She must trust us. She must believe us. She must surrender to us.
If you can do that in the first paragraph or the first page, there’s a good chance she’ll hang on for the whole E-ticket ride.
Thanks for this important reminder Steve – if you lose the reader here, you’re done. One of the most compelling openings I’ve read is from Elizabeth Berg’s “Open House.”
“You know before you know, of course. You are bending over the dryer, pulling out the still-warm sheets, and the knowledge walks up your backbone. You stare at the man you love and you are staring at nothing: he is gone before he is gone.”
I remember the first time I read that paragraph – I had to stop and catch my breath. That set a standard for me in that I want to make the reader lose his/her breath too.
Lukeman’s book is well worth reading and reading again, as is Les Edgerton’s “Hooked.”
Loved “Hooked”! His “Finding Your Voice” is good, too.
I’m a composer, and this applies to music as well. You have to hook the listener right away or you lose them. The supreme master of this, of course, is Beethoven — the beginning of the 5th symphony (or the others), the Moonlight sonata — grip the listener right out of the gate.
Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Handel’s Hallelujah chorus! (This is fun!)
Love the axiom of “start at the first magical line.” Another writer I follow said this: “Write you blog post, then chop off the first paragraph. It’s worthless. Don’t preface the action, start at the action.”
Or you could learn to write a lede and do it properly. If the first paragraph sucks, chances are the second paragraph sucks too. Especially on the web, the important information goes up top and should be conveyed in fewer than 30 words.
hm….Start at the action… I’m from the netherlands and I had a professor from eastern Europe who sat and smiled as I told him the projected I wanted to start. As I finally got to the purpose of the study I asked “why are you just sitting there grinning??” He said: “Because you’re such a European: you start with the background. In America, people start with the punchline. You need to learn to start with the punchline.”
As I read everything you write in these posts, Steve, I find I very much enjoy that you use the word “ain’t” quite often. In fact, I love it.
Why do I have the feeling that this post is written with the “First Page technique”? 😀
In a miniseries version of Arabian Nights a decade or so ago, Scheherazade spends time consulting a master storyteller in the marketplace.
One one visit she asks how she’ll keep this up, how she’ll avoid dying tonight. He answers, “This morning in the marketplace, I met death.”
She sits bolt upright, leans in, and he laughs and tells her the lesson: hook ’em instantly.
If we all wrote (fiction, nonfiction, music) as if we were facing beheading, stories would at least begin better.
Nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that the first paragraph, for him, was the hardest to write, at the point that he found easier to write long novels than to write short stories, because with short stories he had to start all over again with the first paragraph. The first paragraph of his master piece “A hundred years of solitude” is a masterpiece on its own. The first sentence, as I recall, is something like this: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to see the ice for the first time.”
Edit: sorry, “to the point”, not “at the point”
Agree-this is great.I believe it was Mark Twain who popularized these magical words: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter…”
Can’t count how many times I’ve read that quote or similar words recently so I thought I’d look it up. Turns out it was most likely Blaise Pascal who wrote it first, with a handful of other luminaries either paraphrasing or expressing it anew:
Thanks for this Steven. Invaluable insight I will not forget any time soon.
Such great wisdom. Indeed, this applies to many life situations. It’s more important now than ever, because there are so many things vying for our attention. Whether it’s a job interview, finding a relationship, or writing a book, we have to make that first impression our best one. Just like a firm hand shake or a penetrating look. Draw me into you.
The same could be said of the art of singing; whatever the style, the sound of the voice must compel the listener to hear more from the get-go.
You’re right there’s no formula for the magic. (If there was, somebody would be selling it.) Reading those first lines, though, it strikes me that they have something in common, which supports so much of what you’ve said throughout. They say that something’s different, something’s unusual. For instance, “Call me Ishmael.” That’s his name, right, so why would we think to call him something else? That resonates more than “I am Ishmael,” although for a different work, the rhetorical switch (from 2nd person implied imperative to first person declarative) might well work. The opening lines also set tone and context. Hamlet begins with a minor character, a guard, saying “who’s there,” which might be the theme of the whole play. (Read on a few more lines, say to the ironic “long live the king,” and the guards’ natural exchange does lay out what’s going on, or going to happen. Or take the Anna Karenina opening: we’re going to find out how and why this family is unhappy in a different way.
Sometimes openings use the “duh” factor (that’s obvious, why are you telling me) to grab the reader. Sometimes they go against expectations. Sometimes they make us go ‘what?’ (opening of 1984). And sometimes they become cliches (It was a dark and stormy night).
So relatable, Steve. Thanks!
When it was time to write the lead for my first book, the memoir of former marathon champion Dick Beardsley, I was paralyzed with fear. The lead. For a book!
I imagined people opening it and reading the first sentence and deciding whether to buy a copy based on that. My entire career depended on the sentence grabbing them so hard they couldn’t help but fork over the twenty-two ninety-five.
That’s how it felt.
“I think it’s great you’re afraid,” a friend said. “It shows you’re stretching yourself, that this challenge is worthy of you.” I’d never thought of fear that way, as a sign I was on the right track. A little while later, doing dishes, the lead came to me. When Dick was growing up he loved to hunt, fish, and trap animals — and would check his trap lines on the way to school. The book is written in first person, and the lead was going to be: “I was never the teacher’s pet, but I probably smelled like one.”
Everyone loved it. Staying the Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race doesn’t open with it, but that’s another story.
As a dancer, I’ve learned that the audience decides in the first 10 seconds if they like you.
Outstanding post, Steve. Perhaps your most useful post ever.
Cannot recall where, but I read a piece in which a slushreader (or an editor writing of his slushreader experience) wrote that his routine was to reject 6 submissions a minute. That included pulling the SASE and slapping a form rejection letter in it.
He wrote that he pulled the first page of the manuscript halfway out of the envelope. He did not pull the page all the way out. If the first line did not grab him, zip! went the page back into the envelope, he fished out the SASE, slapped in a form rejection letter, tossed the letter in his OUT basket, and grabbed another envelope.
I just finished writing my first book, and it all started when I read ‘The War of Art’ about seven years ago. One week after I finished that book, I got my first writing job, been going ever since. I was actually wondering if you wouldn’t mind writing a short foreword for my book, sort of a full circle celebration, getting a foreword from the guy who actually helped me down this exciting path. I used to work for Mahalo, the educational company you did an author’s segment for about four years ago in Culver City. I met you there, and some of my former coworkers said this might be the best way to get in touch.
Let me know if you’d be interested. I’d be very honored to send you a proof of the book. My email is [email protected]. Thank you Steven for your words and wisdom with ‘Writing Wednesdays’ all these years.