The first pages of a book are like opening a door.
I let myself go at the beginning and write with an easy mind, but by the time I get to the middle I begin to grow timid and to fear my story will be too long…That is why the beginning of my stories is always very promising and looks as though I were starting on a novel, and the middle is huddled and timid, and the end is…like fireworks. — Anton Chekov
The first pages of a book are the first impression a reader, agent, publisher or reviewer will read.
Your goal is to keep them so interested that they can’t put it down. To make sure this happens, consider these eleven requirements for the first few pages. And to make it clear, I’ve used examples from Disney movies.
1. Your beginning should set the stage for the story. Without getting too bogged down with detail, the reader needs to know the general feel for the first scene. Is it indoors or outdoors? What time of year is it, if that’s important? What’s the weather like? Is the main character comfortable or not? What details needs to be mentioned to really see the first scene? Are the descriptions of the initial impression enough for the reader to piece it together so they can put their attention on the main character? In the opening of Aladdin, the viewer sees that the story takes place in a Middle Eastern desert in an Islamic culture. While you don’t have the use of computer animation and story boards, you can express this kind of detail in your words to set the stage.
2. Your beginning should introduce your protagonist. The reader needs a sympathetic inclination toward them, or identify with them or see them doing something that seems virtuous or heroic. A reader will formulate a main character’s appearance in their heads, so rather than insist that the protagonist’s look be precise, give just enough details to help the reader along. Our first impression of the main character should be an active one. Don’t have them waking up first thing in the morning or looking out a window. Now Disney did do this with poor Cinderella. The viewer meets her as she is wakened by birds and mice, but I’m going to cut her a break, since she worked so dang much and deserves a little shut eye.
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray Bradbury
3. Your beginning should indicate early on the point of view and narrative voice. These are important because they set the tone of whole story. Carefully choose what character you want to tell the story that’s in your head. Choose the character that has the most to lose. Consider choosing the character that has the strongest emotional connection to the theme. Then, make the words that they use be unique to them. In Pocahontas, the story was not told from the point of view of Captain Smith, but of our title character. Pocahontas and her tribe had the most to lose in this story. The entire tone of the movie reflected her rich connection with nature and her worldview. Had it been told from Captain Smith’s point of view, everything about it would have been different. Including the name.
4. Your beginning should hint at the theme. This must be a just a subtlety. In the first reading, your audience won’t see the connection between this opening shot and the rest of the book. But, if your theme is strong and consistent, they will go back to the beginning and see what you have done. Make your theme and intentions of the book understated. It may even be helpful to wait until the rest of the story has been drafted before you tackle the first scene. That’s not cheating, that’s art. In Lion King, the grand, big opening is the presentation of Simba to all of the animal kingdom by his family. Later the viewer sees that the themes include duty and family obligations. So the opening shot points to what’s coming up next.
5. Your beginning shouldn’t focus on making your main character likable. Instead, focus on making them interesting. Whatever actions you put them in, make it intriguing enough so that the reader wants to know what happened. You’ve got the first third of the book to convince your reader that your protagonist is worth rooting for. Take your time. With apologies to every four-year-old girl in the universe, I’m not convinced that Anna from Frozen was all that likable. She was certainly cute, cheerful and spunky. I had a hard time being sympathetic to her for never leaving her castle. Don’t even get me started on wanting to marry the first guy to show up at her party. Regardless of how I felt about her, I was still interested in how she was going to get out of this mess. For all her flaws, she was interesting.
“A novel is a tricky thing to map.”
― Reif Larsen
6. Your beginning should move quickly with vivid action. A first chapter is not the place for deep introspection, navel gazing or explanation of tragic backstory. All of that can come about the first fourth of the story when the protagonist is debating whether or not to move forward on the adventure. In the beginning, concentrate on convincing the reader this character is worth following through his actions and words. Let’s turn our attention to Cars. The first scene is a race! What’s more active than that? The viewer meets Lightning McQueen (who also wasn’t that likeable) and sees him in action. We rooted for him to win and we didn’t even know why. The action told us about his history and his strengths and weaknesses. We were far more willing to watch what happened to him because we had seen him in action.
7. Your beginning should also explain the status quo. What is the main character’s life like? In just a few pages, you’re going to have that inciting incident jump on the reader like a jungle cat. To have the reader react well and care about the protagonist, the reader needs to know what peace is like for this main character. If done effectively, the reader will become more sympathetic to their plight and hope they fight that tiger well. This is where Belle from Beauty and the Beast sings Bonjour and shows us what it’s like in her poor provincial town. We know something is coming, (I mean the title is kind of a spoiler.) We’re more sympathetic to her because we understand how much she will lose once the story gets going.
“I almost always urge people to write in the first person. Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it.”
― William Zinsser
8. Your beginning should explain, even briefly, what the deepest longing is for the protagonist. Now as you sculpt the story, you can add to this, or change it. The story hinges on your protagonist’s desire. Express this in a simple choice they make, something they say, or how they respond to a situation. Make sure that this desire is significant: it must be something that is a universal, something we can all identify with. Oh, Ariel, can you sing us that song again? In The Little Mermaid, we see Ariel swimming around describing her collection of treasures, explaining how unsatisfying they are. Part of Your World explains her deepest longing and sets the viewer up. We wonder now how she is going to get it.
9. Your beginning should have a big event. This is called the inciting incident. Besides being redundant, this is the big event that gets everything going for our main character. Often, the event is unexpected and disturbing. In Snow White, the queen hates our sweet little princess. The queen makes a decision that forces Snow White into the woods. This changes everything for Snow. Within your first few pages, you need to have your main character face something unexpected — it can be positive or negative — that sets the story in motion around them. Hopefully this incident will spark even more sympathy for them and keep the reader engaged.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
― Ernest Hemingway
10. Your beginning must have a figurative or literal threshold for your main character. He or she enters a new world or a new phase of life that is unfamiliar. In Toy Story, Woody unwillingly crosses the threshold from being Andy’s favorite toy to his second favorite. With the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, everything about Woody’s life is different. He has to figure out how he’s going to handle it. We’ve all been rejected. We’ve all tried to make sense of it. So Woody has our sympathy. Woody crosses another threshold when he decides to rescue Buzz against his better judgement, but that crossing goes into the second act. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
11. Your beginning should ask questions. What will happen next? In A Bug’s Life, by the end of the first act, the viewer wondered what was going to happen to Flick. The viewer wondered what the Ant Queen was going to do about the Grasshopper terrorists. As the story progresses, the questions should become more complicated and not necessarily answered.
Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.