Article Archive



From the Beginning

by Nann Dunne 

The potential buyer has picked up a book—perhaps the cover caught her attention or the synopsis sounded like something she might like to read. (An attractive cover and a good synopsis are a MUST!) Now she opens to the first page. The author has only a few seconds to persuade the buyer to choose this book. Scanning quickly down the first page—which is actually a half page in most books—the reader shakes her head. She glances at a few more pages, closes the book, and moves on. What happened?

Here’s the way the story started:

Cindy Hodges expertly guided her beige Jaguar along the lush, tree-lined street, one of the main roads into Belloit, New Jersey, as her deep brown eyes strove to read the green-and-silver street signs in the dimming roseate light of dusk. She tossed her long, golden tresses behind her with a quick shake of her head, and pondered over the short missive whose reception yesterday morning had precipitated this unusual excursion across the geography of half the nation.

The letter had come from her childhood friend: tall, dark-haired, gray-eyed, self-reliant Marissa. Cindy owed Marissa a lot. They had gone to school together and they had a pact to help each other whenever called upon, no matter what. She was surprised to get the cryptic plea from the fiercely independent Marissa; she hadn’t heard from her for nearly a year. But she had to come when called; it was part of their sworn agreement. And Marissa hadn't included a phone number.

As the evening darkened, Cindy passed beneath a street light and grabbed a quick glance at the map to check the location of the proper street for the umpteenth time. She didn't want to use the overhead light; it made it hard for her to see while driving. She always kept a good selection of maps in the car’s glove compartment and pulled them out as needed. She was looking for number 40 Mallen Street, just south of the intersection with Ascot Street. She was on Ascot now, heading south, with about three more streets to go before Mallen. She was going to have to take a guess on whether to turn right or left; the map didn't give block numbers.


Why didn’t this grab the reader? The author is introducing at least one of the main characters in these few opening paragraphs, always a good idea. But an overall look at the three paragraphs reveals that the author has been wordy and repetitious and is trying to describe too much at once, most of which is inconsequential to the story at this point.

In the first paragraph, for instance, a color has been assigned to nearly every noun: beige Jaguar, brown eyes, green-and-silver street signs, roseate light, golden tresses. This kaleidoscope overwhelms the reader’s visual senses and doesn’t add much to the story. Some of those details could be introduced more unobtrusively as the story progresses. The last sentence sounds too contrived for this type of story, as though the author suddenly decided a few uncommon words would pep up her introduction.

The second paragraph probably was intended to whet the reader’s curiosity, but it’s too sketchy and ambiguous to accomplish that goal. Cindy owed Marissa a lot. A lot? Did Marissa save Cindy’s life? Did she offer understanding when no one else would? Just what is the pact? This would be the ideal place to touch at least lightly on what is owed, and why. Even better, the author could show the letter; but she has missed a great chance to arouse the reader’s curiosity. The last sentence is merely a rewording of sentence two.

The third paragraph has no relevance to anything to come in the story. Descriptive detail has an important place in any story; the wise author uses it to impart realism. But unnecessary detail can get boring, and should be avoided. Plus, the three "She was" sentences add to the paragraph’s dullness.

Though it may not be a fair assessment, such a lackluster beginning brings expectations of more of the same through the rest of the story. By reading randomly selected passages, the potential buyer can check this out, and usually finds the same weaknesses. The savvy reader will leave at this point, and the author has lost the sale. It’s too late to resurrect this book’s opening page, but perhaps we can learn a lesson from this imaginary experience. If we don’t capture the reader right away, forget the sale.

Writing authorities differ on what they consider the most desirable number of pages to concentrate your energies on in hopes of enticing readers. Some say the first five pages, some the first chapter, some the first several chapters. One suggests that we should treat every single chapter, page, paragraph, sentence, and word with the same forethought, making it as alluring as we possibly can. That is a noteworthy ideal, but no matter how well written the rest of the story is, if the first page doesn’t do its job, the lost buyer won’t read your remarkable prose.

Revise and polish your first page to be as intriguing as possible in the small space provided, and the potential buyer might turn into an actual one. Just make sure the rest of the story lives up to the beginning!

© 2003, Nann Dunne
From Nann Dunne's Fiction-Editing Handbook (a work in progress).

Back to Article Archive.