Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 1

After years and years of subscribing to Writer’s Digest, I just added The Writer to my writing resources. So far I’m not sorry.

One article in the October issue chronicles the worst mistakes in mystery writing. Some points were unique to the genre, but many were not. Some I’d already filed away in my mental folder of Things to Avoid, including coincidence or an act of God, narration masquerading as dialogue, a superfluity of viewpoints, and stereotypical characters.

Another point was “false starts.” At first I didn’t know what that referred to—prologues, maybe? As it turns out, this was in part also in my Things to Avoid list. The point of emphasis is that readers need to keep reading, so the first scene should intrigue. Readers should be asking, What happens next?

Pitfalls that dampen the intrigue are glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in, yes, a prologue.

I was familiar with the flash forward itself. The author of this particular article, Hallie Ephron, says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

The real point of this “false starts” issue, I think, is that readers need to keep reading. But that speaks to more than the beginning. If readers love the first five pages of a book, only to be bored silly in the next ten, I doubt seriously if they will feel the Need to Read.

And that’s the goal writers should have—make those readers care, make them want to keep going, make them impatient to pick up the book again if life forces them to put it down.

Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off? Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with, which I think is an automatic strike against the story. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through the life of their story. These have a strike against them too because it’s hard to care for a character who doesn’t care.

But the engaging character is only one part. The other is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says. It’s so easy to think the reader will “get” that the character description and backstory is vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is.

This one, I’ve learned the hard way, just isn’t so.

Published in: on September 15, 2008 at 1:02 pm  Comments Off on Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 1  
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