Writing Excuses 10.16: What Do I Do with All This Blank Space?
Key Points: The first page establishes tone, genre, and makes a couple of big promises. Convince the reader that you’re competent and that they want to read the book. You don’t need to start with an establishing shot. The key is the order of information that you present to the reader. Imagine a dark theater and a flashlight picking out one thing at a time. You don’t have to start by writing the perfect first line, first page, or even first chapter — start writing, then go back and create the beginning. A hook — tone, conflict, motion. Don’t get stuck on the first line, stress the first page. Sometimes we write upside down — take the last sentence and move it to the beginning, and see what happens. The first thing the character notices, and the last thing they think about are important. The stuff in the middle is filler. Make sure you don’t bury the good stuff in the middle! The first page needs to indicate what’s important to the character. What do they want? Also, what kind of conflict is coming? Something cool! Introduce the character, and introduce the problem. The first page builds trust. Raise some questions, and answer them, to show you know what you’re doing. Raise another question and don’t answer it so that the reader wonders about it (a.k.a. a hook!). In the first page, I’m looking for character voice and cool things!
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 16.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, What Do I Do with All This Blank Space?
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] We’re going to focus on your first few pages this time. Specifically chapter 1. Now previously, we discussed what to get into the first one third of your story. Mary, you’re the one that suggested that we do the first page after we did the first third.
[Mary] Right. Because one of the things… When you’re trying to work out all of the different things, the first page is the one that is hardest because it is the one where you are establishing tone and genre and making a couple of big promises. With short fiction, in particular, you have to do this in about 13 lines. With a novel, you usually have the first chapter to kind of easy in, but you’re still looking at the first page. That’s the thing… I mean, you guys know, you go and browse bookstores. That’s the thing that makes you decide whether or not you want to buy the book.
[Brandon] I often use an analogy here, that people feel so judged as writers by, “Oh, they’re only going to look at the first paragraphs or the first page?” But how long does it take you to tell if a piece of music is something that you might be interested in? 10 seconds? 13… 15 seconds? You can tell what genre that is and if it’s generally a song that’s the type you’re going to enjoy and how competent the person playing that song is. You could tell the difference between a pianist who’s been playing for 30 years and one that’s been playing for a year in 15 seconds. So the reading public is going to judge your book just in the same way. They’re going to have instincts about that. Your job is to convince them in that first page that, number one, you’re competent. You know what you’re doing. Number two, this is a book you, reader, absolutely gotta read.
[Dan] I love first lines of books for the same reason that I love opening shots of movies. Entire books, entire college courses have been taught on here’s the… Let’s look at the first shot of this movie and let’s look at the first shot of this movie. What does that say about how to watch the rest of the movie? You can tell so much just in those first few lines of a chapter.
[Howard] It’s important to recognize, though that… I mean, the term establishing shot, we hear it a lot. A lot of people think, “Well, then I need to start with an establishing shot.” You don’t necessarily need to start with that.
[Brandon] No, you don’t.
[Howard] Often, if your establishing shot is something where you decide in order to win the reader over I’m going to wax a little purple as the camera zooms up to the castle, you are not promising us the sort of book that you’re probably actually writing in the next couple of pages.
[Mary] Your establishing shot can be a close-up. It’s just… What we’re talking about, though, is the order of information that you present to the reader. When you’re asking a reader to read, what they’re doing is building an image of the story one word at a time. So the order in which you present things becomes really, really important. It’s very easy to send them down the wrong path if you choose the wrong starting point. The way I often describe it is, if you imagine yourself in a dark theater and someone has a flashlight they’re shining on the stage. They’re controlling what you’re looking at. So if the first thing they shine it on is a pool of red liquid, you’re like, “Blood! I’m going to see a murder mystery.” Then they slide it over and there’s a can of Kool-Aid tipped on the side and you’re like, “Oh. No. Kitchen drama.” They slide just a little bit farther over and there’s a bloody knife and a severed arm. You’re like, “I’m reading one Dan Wells’s books!”
[Dan] A kitchen drama and a murder mystery! It’s great.
[Howard] Hey. Kool-Aid, a murder in three acts.
[Dan] So the thing that I want to say. We’ve talked so much about how important the first chapter, the first page, even the first line are. The first thing that a reader reads does not and should not be the first thing you write. You don’t need sit there staring at that blank space for 10 weeks trying to come up with the perfect first line. Just start writing. I can’t remember the last time, and this is probably never, that the first chapter I wrote for a book actually survives the editing process and is the first chapter in the actual book.
[Mary] I… I… I’ll just be quiet over here.
[Howard] But by the same token, the… Ultimately, the title of this thing that you’re working on rarely is going to be the very first thing you write down.
[Brandon] That’s part of why I liked when Mary suggested let’s talk about the first third before the first page. Because the first third, you’re going to be doing a lot of things. You’ll eventually boil that down to what needs to be your first page. But it rarely will be the first thing you write. This is really good advice, really important advice, because I’ve had many a student just say, “I can’t come up with a great first line.” Part of the problem this is, they’ve been trained in high school that your first line to an essay or whatever needs to be a hook. Yes, it does. But it’s a hook of the style we’re talking about here. The hook does not need to be something eye-catching necessarily. It needs to be something that indicates the proper tone. That indicates some sort of conflict and motion. That’s what I tell my students. You want to get conflict in the first line, the first page in particular. Often, when we’re talking about beginnings, I list my favorite first line, which is from 1984. Which is, “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13.” I love that first line, because yes, there’s a hook in that, but it’s a very simple hook. We’re in another world, the clocks strike 13 in this world. We’ve changed to a different place, but there are still clocks. The fact that it is…
[Howard] There is still April.
[Brandon] There’s still April. So we’re in our world, but an alternate version of it. It’s a perfect introduction. That’s the sort of thing you’re looking for. It’s got inherent conflict in it.
[Mary] Marley was dead to begin with. Similar.
[Dan] My favorite first line is Neuromancer. The color of the sky… Or “The sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.” Which doesn’t have a ton of drama to it, but it does have the word dead in it. It does suggest technology, and technology that doesn’t function properly. It tells you all of these wonderful things, and it does so in a beautiful way.
[Mary] There’s also a little bit of snark to it, which Neuromancer also has.
[Brandon] I would say, though we’re talking about great ones, stress your first line a little less in your head. Stress your first page a little more. If you can get this across in your first page, you’re going to be all right.
[Howard] I’ve found a lot… I’ve talked about this technique before. Often, the way in which we present information in paragraphs, in pages, is upside down. We will write the things that we think needed to be written first, and then we work our way down to something specific. Often, what I’ll do, just to see if I’m… Just to see if I wrote it wrong is I will flip it upside down. I’ll take the last sentence of the paragraph and put it as the first sentence, and treat everything else as something that stands in support of that first sentence. I do this at varying points throughout the prose to see if what I was doing was in fact writing my way up to that piece of pith that summed everything up well. It’s a lot of fun, and often what I find is that that last line that needed to be the first line is actually the thing that the character is noticing first, the thing that the reader would in fact notice first. Everything else is the stuff that you notice second and third, that stands in support of that first key thing.
[Mary] One of the interesting things about the way we notice information, particularly when it’s written, is that the first thing you list is the first thing the character notices, and the last thing you list is the thing they linger on. But all the stuff in the middle? It is kind of just there for set dressing. So a lot of times, that’s one of the reasons that your first page or first line will go wrong, is because you’ve got stuff… You’ve got the good stuff buried in the middle and lost.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Mary, you are going to pitch a book to us.
[Mary] I’m listening right now, I haven’t finished, to The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker. It is amazing. The narrator, George Guidall, is just… He’s so good. But the thing that I am loving about this book. It’s set in the early 1900s and basically there is… It’s early 1900s New York, so it’s a city of immigrants, and it’s… There’s a golem there who’s trying to make her way through the world as a golem. Then there’s a Jinni who was just released from imprisonment in a bottle. So both of them are immigrants to this new world.
[Brandon] Interesting. That’s so cool.
[Mary] It’s so cool. One of them is an immigrant in Little Syria, and one of them is an immigrant in a Hasidic Jewish area. So it’s dealing with all of these culture clashes and class issues. But the moment it starts… Like the promises it begins with are just… It opens, and you’re like, “Oh. Oh, I’m going to love this book.”
[Brandon] That’s excellent.
[Mary] I really encourage you to go over to audible and start your free 30-day trial membership. All you have to do is go to audiblepodcast.com/writingexcuses…
[Howard] Slash excuse.
[Mary] Slash excuse. I’m sorry. Audiblepodcast/excuse… Oh, there’s a dot com in there too. It’s… There’s a link on the website, just click that. Go pick up The Golem and the Jinni. It’s amazing. I highly recommend it.
[Brandon] Excellent. That sounds really cool. I have to go get that one.
[Brandon] Let’s talk more about beginnings, particularly your first page. What are other things that you guys look for to put on your first page, or when you’re picking up a book, what things on the first page grab you?
[Mary] I’m… There’s a couple of… You’ve asked two different questions. But one of the things that I am looking for is… I kind of want to know what sort of conflict I’m heading in for. But specifically, I want to know what is important to the character. Because I’m in… When I’m reading and when I write, I’m in the ride for the characters. So I want to know what is important to the character. I try personally to get that into the first page. I also like to know what their position in society is, because that will affect how they interact with everything.
[Brandon] I rarely try to get the plot of the book into the first page, or even the first chapter. In the first page, first chapter, I want the character to want something. I want to show them trying to get that or wishing they could get that. But I’m not going to focus too much on where that’s going to go. That I’ll need by the end of the third chapter, for sure.
[Howard] As a reader, I resonate strongly here with Mary. I want to identify with a character early. I want to be seeing what they are seeing, and because I love genre fiction, I want it to be cool. I want this already to be taking me someplace interesting. Maybe this judgment is a little unfair, but if I’m having that experience in the first few lines, but the bold text above it says Prologue, part of what I feel like you’re telling me is maybe don’t get attached to this person, because you’re only going to see them for one chapter, then it’s done. If that’s not the case, if no, you’re going to follow this character throughout, go ahead and get attached to them, just right Chapter 1 instead of Prologue. I mean, I feel silly saying this, but the beginning of the book, the first thing I read is often Prologue or Chapter 1. One of those signals me in a way that for me personally is very encouraging.
[Mary] I want to say, just because Brandon and I write books a very different lengths…
[Howard] And Brandon writes prologues, and I’ve read them and I liked them.
[Brandon] I’ve had up to three prologues. I don’t recommend it.
[Mary] But Brandon said by the end of the first three chapters. For me, with my books, it’s usually by the end of the first chapter. When I’m writing short fiction, it’s by the end of the first page. But what we’re talking about here is a percentage.
[Brandon] In Way of Kings, I went 13 chapters before I really even started to get into it. But in one of the shorter Mistborn novels, I will do it first chapter. You have a chapter that’s introducing the character, and by the end of that chapter, there will usually be a we need to talk about something, and then we go introduce the problem.
[Howard] You know what, at the risk of stretching the first line… Often, the first line that somebody reads when they pick up Way of Kings is by Brandon Sanderson. That is a promise that says this is the sort of ride that I’m in for.
[Brandon] I rarely tell people to start with The Way of Kings. When someone asks me what to start with, I say, “Well, this is a book to read once you trust me.”
[Brandon] This is a problem that sometimes new writers have. They come to me and they’re like, “I want to write this stuff.” I’m like, “Good. Write what you love. Go for what you love. Understand, I couldn’t sell The Way of Kings.” I tried, after I had a book deal to sell that to Tor, and they wouldn’t touch it, because a book that’s 400,000 words with three prologues is not the sort of thing that readers are going to do in less they trust you.
[Howard] The important thing there is trust. If we talk about the first page is something where you are building trust early on, that’s the key.
[Mary] One of the ways you build trust with the readers in that first page or even the first couple of pages is, and this goes to the first line and all of that… It’s not just about the questions that you’re asking. I mean, it’s not just about what the character is interested in, but it’s also the questions that you’re raising for the reader. So if you’re raising a question, and then you immediately answer it, then they’re like, “Okay, this person knows what they’re doing.” If you raise a couple of questions and you give them answers, and then you raise one and you don’t answer it, they’re like, “Oh, they’re not answering this on purpose. I wonder what this is about.” But what you’ll see a lot of…
[Howard] That’s often called a hook.
[Brandon] That’s a hook. That’s brilliant, Mary. I really like how you encapsulated that. One other thing that I want to talk about, though, I mentioned briefly writing skill and showing that you can do this. What I mean by that, listener, we’re going to get into in upcoming episodes about how to get information across in a way that’s dynamic and interesting. This is what I’m looking for. I want to see in that first page, can the author give me character voice, either in a first-person or a third person, in a way that it just makes that character’s personality sing off the page at me. I know who this person is. It’s in the simple things, in the way they describe the world. Not by saying, “John was a man who liked such and such.” By showing it to me. The other big thing is how are they getting across information to me as a reader. I love science fiction and fantasy. I want to see, as Howard said, cool things. I don’t want to be told about cool things. I want to see cool things. That first page is your chance to show me something cool.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our homework, then. Mary, you have the homework this week.
[Mary] What I want you to do is, I actually just want you to write the first page. In a standard manuscript format, the first page is only 13 lines. Frequently, honestly and depressingly, an editor will decide on the first 13 lines. So I’m going to ask you to just write your first 13 lines. I want you to see if you can fit in… See how much you can fit into those 13 lines, about your character, what it is that they want, see if you can get the conflict in. Go ahead, give it a try. But when I say fitting in your character, what were looking for is their class, their attitude, their mood. Those… The attitude and the mood is going to be things that really drive how this is going. Then, of course, I also need to know the genre and the tone of the story. So see how much you can fit into those first 13 lines.
[Brandon] Right. If you did your homework last time, you have three different versions of how you could start your story. The idea is now to take one of those and try and just saturate it. Just stick everything you can in there as is possible. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.