The Fifty-Page Dash
by Dave King
When I asked an agent recently how she decided whether to take on a manuscript, she told me she asked for the first fifty pages and read the first sentence. If she liked the first sentence, she read the second. If she liked that one, she read the third, and so on. If she reached the end of the first fifty pages without putting the manuscript down, she signed it up.
Granted, most readers are willing to read your second sentence even if the first one isn't brilliant, but the agent's answer shows the importance of hook. If you haven't grabbed your readers within, say, your first fifty pages, you've probably lost them. So if you've been gleaning compliments from your writer's group and getting good responses to your query letters, but your first fifty pages keep coming back with polite rejections, then you may have a good story that doesn't get started soon enough. If so, it's time to go back to the beginning and start looking for trouble.
Starting the Real Story
Since at least the time of Shakespeare, storytellers have known that leading with a good noisy fight or a ghost was a great way to get the attention of the guys in the cheap seats. Many of my clients open their manuscripts with loud, attention grabbing scenes. But many of them become clients partly because they fail to follow their attention-graber with the actual story. Sometimes that tense, exciting scene at the beginning of chapter one doesn't connect with the real plot until chapter ten.
One recent client opened her story with an Army nurse's first day in the blood and mayhem of a field hospital in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the novel was less about the nurse's Vietnam experiences than how those experiences affected her later marriage and motherhood, and we didn't even meet her future husband for another 150 pages. The author solved the problem by opening the next draft with the ex-nurse going into labor for the first time and experiencing a flashback that leaves her huddled under her hospital bed. The maternity ward is less exciting than the field hospital, but the new opening focused less on Vietnam itself and more on how Vietnam affected the nurse, which is where the true story was.
Remember, you want to do more than get your readers' attention in your first fifty pages. You want to draw them into your story. These opening pages are where you first create the tension that will drive your readers through to the climax. So if you've already opened with an attention-grabbing scene, check back to make sure it also raises the questions that your ending resolves and that the next few scenes enlarge on these questions.
Also, make sure you've made things tough for your main character by the end of your first fifty pages. Your opening scenes may eventually have an impact on the main character, but until he or she is actually in trouble, your story hasn't really started.
I recently worked on a medical thriller that opened with a "code": a team of doctors battling to save a patient, with arcane medications administered in a rush and ultimately the shock paddles to the chest. The problem? More than 100 pages passed before the main character began to suspect that another doctor, his old mentor, had practiced euthanasia on the coded patient. So the opening didn't mean anything to readers for more than 100 pages. I suggested that the author have the doctor feel some doubts about the code immediately after it happened, so readers would realize that the code was actually the beginning of the story.
Finessing the Opening
Of course, it's sometimes impossible to open your story with a pertinent attention-grabbing scene. Some murder mysteries have to introduce a number of different suspects before the first body drops. Some romances have to show the couple meeting and getting to know one another before the real tension in the relationship starts. How do you get your readers involved in your story if they need to know a lot of background before the story makes sense?
First, make sure that your readers do, in fact, need to know all the background. In the Vietnam novel, readers didn't need to know the nurse's whole story before they saw how it affected her. In fact, discovering what drove her to give birth under her hospital bed rather than on it gave the story an air of mystery that actually increased the tension.
So maybe you readers don't need to know all the details of the con man's real-estate scam before they see his body floating face-down in the pool. They just need to know the scam cost people a lot of money, and you can fill that in during the investigation. Perhaps they don't need to see your lovers meet to understand how things are between them, and you can start the story where each begins to realize the other isn't as perfect as they thought. In short, if your story has a slow beginning, try starting in the middle.
If this really won't work, you might want to consider a prologue, where you move part of the middle to the beginning. If you open with a prologue of one of your young lovers attempting suicide, for instance, then your reader will know that the happy relationship they see in Chapter One will turn tragic at some point. And if your prologue doesn't make it clear whether or not the suicide succeeds, you really give your readers reason to keep reading.
I once worked on a mystery in which the victim moved into a small town and started throwing money around irresponsibly, creating a lot of anger and greed and making enemies. Since the various motives were pretty intricate, it would have been awkward to bring all the details out through flashbacks or during the investigation. The author was essentially saddled with giving the readers 150 pages of story before bringing in the body. A prologue in which the detective found the body solved the problem. To add to the tension, the author didn't identify whose body was found — before he dies, the victim drives one or two characters, including the detective's oldest friend, to the point of suicide. Readers were left trying to guess who the body in the woods would turn out to be, and that uncertainty kept them reading until the story caught up with the prologue.
Character and Tension
As with any other plot problem, the best solution to a late-starting story may lie in your characters. An opening that presents sharply drawn and engaging characters may lure readers into the story more quickly than an anonymous bit of excitement. "Call me Ishmael" became a legendary opening line because those three words tell you volumes about who the narrator is and how he feels about his life. You want to find out what kind of story this man has to tell.
Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone mysteries simply open with Millhone talking to her readers in her charmingly irreverent voice. By the second page of G is for Gumshoe, we learn that Millhone cuts her own hair with a nail scissors and, if asked to rate her looks on a scale of one to ten, wouldn't. A character that intriguing leads most readers to keep reading.
Dick Francis is another master of this technique. Whip Hand, for instance, opens with a prologue in which the only thing that happens is that an ex-jocky dreams about a race. We don't even learn the man's name, yet the dream shows his deep passion for racing; when he wakes to the realization that he'll never race again, readers share his crushing sense of loss and resignation. The main story starts quickly after that — he is involved in the investigation that is the center of the plot by the end of the first chapter — but readers are hooked from that dream alone.
Of course, most authors get to know their characters as they write them, which means the characters are at their most flat and uninteresting in Chapter One. But there are a few easy solutions to this problem. One is to simply scrap your first-draft opening and rewrite it once you know who your characters are. Or you could add a prologue that, like the prologue in Whip Hand, showcases your main character's personality. Or you could write out the events that happened during the two weeks before your first chapter, so you already know in detail who your characters are before your readers meet them. In any case, you can draw your readers into your story by giving them characters to love from the very beginning.
Laying the Ground Rules
As you rewrite your first fifty pages to start your story with a strong hook and introduce your characters, remember that you're also establishing the ground rules for how you will tell your story. By the end of those fifty pages, your readers should know what genre you're writing in (if any) and what stylistic techniques you'll use, and even have some idea of the metaphysics behind the world you've created. You need to give them a comfortable set of expectations about your mechanics and worldview so they can concentrate on your characters and events. If you later shift those expectations without reason, you run the risk of driving your readers back out of the story.
So if you write from several different points of view, make sure you switch POV at least once early on to let your readers know what to expect. If your world includes occasional magic and miracles, let your readers know such things are possible from the beginning. If the resolution of your story hinges on one particular character, make sure your readers meet that character quickly.
A client once had one of her characters come back as a ghost at the end of the manuscript. Unfortunately, her story up until that point didn't hint that ghosts were a possibility, so the ghost's appearance shifted her readers into a different sort of universe without any warning. I suggested that the author give the future ghost a mystical bent from the beginning, with occasional premonitions and glimpses of the spirit world. These hints were enough to alert readers that they were in the kind of universe where magic happened.
Of course, there are cases, most often mysteries, where you can't alert your readers that a given character or plot element is important without giving away your plot twists. One client's manuscript opened with her main character, a corporate lawyer who had just joined the legal team of a major oil company, mourning the apparent suicide of her lover, a researcher for the same company. But because the first few chapters introduced various company managers and showed details of the company's organization, readers knew the company was going to play a role in the plot. It came as no surprise, then, when the lawyer discovered that her lover was actually murdered because he'd uncovered a conspiracy within the company.
The author had to introduce her readers to the company before she hit them with the truth — plot twists are always more satisfying when there's a sense of the familiar about them. But she also had to give the company a reason for being in the first fifty pages. She could, for instance, give the lawyer some close friends in the oil company hierarchy, friends who would comfort her over her lover's death. Or the lawyer could deal with her lover's death by throwing herself into her work, which would let the author show the company's organization while readers are watching the lawyer's emotional state. Or the lawyer could suspect that the lover's apparent suicide had something to do with the company — excess tension from overwork, say — and delve into it, only to discover the conspiracy. In any case, the author had to give the company a false reason for appearing so early in the story so readers wouldn't suspect the real reason.
Your readers are willing to take you on faith at the beginning, to invest some effort in learning who your characters are, what your story is about, what your world is like. Pay back their effort quickly. Let them know as early as possible that you're giving them a story, characters and a world that are worth reading about. If you can do that, then they'll stick around for more than just the first fifty pages.