I recently did a private “Crafting a Compelling First Page” workshop for a critique group in Portland, OR. I have to say that it was a treat to have an unlimited amount of time for discussion—we started at 10 am and didn’t finish up until after 3 (broke for lunch). They were all strong writers, yet several of their first pages got plenty of “no” votes.
A part of the workshop was a discussion of the first-page checklist, the one you see here on FtQ. As part of my discussion of story questions, I cited writer Steven James in his book, Story Trumps Structure:
“You do not have a story until something goes wrong.”
I agree with that. In our discussion of the checklist, one of the group asked if that shouldn’t be included.
In looking at the first pages that did get a yes vote for turning the page, either something went wrong for the protagonist or something had already gone wrong in their story—either way, the character was faced with conflict and a need/desire to do something about it. So I'm adding that to the checklist.
But “wrong” isn’t always the source of conflict and tension in an opening, particularly in crime and private-eye fiction. There, trouble or a mystery question can challenge the character.
As always, teaching workshops leads to me learning something more about writers and writing. One of the checklist items is the notion that something is happening in the scene. While I say to not include a character musing, it occurs to me that, nonetheless, thinking is a form of action. While a character may not be taking physical action, she can take mental or emotional action, it seems to me. Deciding to do something risky to deal with trouble can qualify as action, don’t you think?
So here’s an evolved version of the checklist:
A First-page Checklist
- It begins to engage the reader with the character
- Something is wrong/goes wrong or challenges the character
- The character desires something.
- The character takes action that involves risk. Can be internal or external action: thoughts, deeds, emotions. This does NOT include musing about whatever.
- There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
- It happens in the NOW of the story.
- Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- The one thing it must do: raise a story question.
Caveat: a first page can succeed without including all of these possibilities. They are simply tools you can use. In particular, a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and a create page turn without doing all of the above. On the other hand, testing pages with the checklist no matter where they are in a story can help identify where a narrative lags and why it does.
Download a free PDF copy of the checklist here.
Please share your thoughts. Meanwhile, there’s still nothing in the Flogometer queue, so submissions are invited.
Submissions needed. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.
The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.
Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.
What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the checklist before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.
For what it’s worth.
Submitting to the Flogometer:
Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):
- your title
- your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
- Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
- Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
- And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
- If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
- If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.
Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey