The first pages of a book are like opening a door. When your reader, agent, publisher or reviewer opens it, you really want them to be so interested that they can’t put it down. To make sure this happens, consider these five 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 need 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 Islamic culture. While you don’t have the use of computer animation and storyboards, 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 the 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 to 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 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.
So, here are five requirements and they should get you started. Next week? Six more! Stay tuned!