You have three pages to hook your reader and grab the interest of an agent and editor. Three pages isn’t a lot of space and knowing what all has to fit into those pages can create a lot of anxiety. We end up spending a lot of our time writing and re-writing and guessing and second-guessing ourselves to get those pages just right.
There is a great resource on how to nail those first three pages, that I’m going to recommend to you, but not just yet.
There are four things that need to go into those first few pages which I’m going to tell you about, and which the resource goes into in much greater depth. But I’m also going to tell you that you don’t have to get those pages perfect. At least not yet.
When my first three pages failed me
A few years ago a conference I was attending held workshops run by the guests of honour. That meant authors and editors ran workshops to critique the first few pages of a novel. Some might teach classes on how to pitch or right your query and synopsis. The workshop I was a part of was lead by an editor at Penguin Books Canada.
I worked sooooo hard on those three pages. Actually, I think is was five plus the query and synopsis but we’ll go with three pages.
Everyone loved those pages. Most everyone. There was one person who didn’t, but they seemed to have difficulty with everyone’s pages — and no it wasn’t the editor — so while they had some valid points, I mostly revelled in the joy that everyone loved them. That had never happened before.
After the workshop, I was flying high. Everyone had loved what I’d written. While the editor hadn’t said it was the best thing ever, she had some really amazing feedback, and I couldn’t wait to get back home to keep writing.
And then I got home.
I had spent so much time perfecting those pages, that I had no where to go with the story.
Nothing I wrote after that could compare to those first few pages. It was all terrible. Sure, I could have continued to re-write. The problem was that my first three pages weren’t actually that perfect. They were interesting, well written, but they weren’t enough to carry a story.
Because I hadn’t written the story yet.
Write the story then perfect the first three pages
I firmly believe that you can’t truly know the beginning of a story until you know, and have written, the ending. But what does that mean?
It means: write the story first, then go back and make those first three pages, and every other page as perfect as you can.
However you write, whether you write a detailed outline first or write as you go, figure out who your characters are, what they want, and what’s going to get in their way. Write. Figure out the climactic scene, what it is all worth, what is at stake and what it all means to your protagonist.
As you write and figure all of this out, you will inevitably go back and re-write the previous pages and chapters, weaving in story and character and plot. Perfecting those pages as you go.
There are a few things to keep in mind as you write.
How to nail the first three pages
Lisa Cron in her CreativeLive course How to nail the first three pages, in my estimation the best and only resource needed on this subject, gives us the four elements that need to go into that first scene. This is not an affiliate link. I absolutely love this course (and it is quite inexpensive)!
I’m going to summarize them here, but to go in depth, I cannot recommend this class enough. it is hours, only a couple hours of your time.
Lisa Cron says that the first scene of a novel you need to:
- Give a glimpse of the big picture. Don’t hold anything back. The first paragraph is a promise to the reader. This is where you are telling them where we’re going, what the story is going to be about.
- Whose story is it? Who is the principle protagonist? Even if you have more than one Point of View character in your novel, there is one who is the principle. While they don’t have to be in the first scene, it is usually a good idea that they are, or that the reader understands who they are even if they don’t meet them right away.
- What is happening here? What is the conflict that is going to drive the story, carry it from beginning to end; and
- What’s at stake and why does it matter to the protagonist? This is what pulls the reader in and truly hooks them. The action doesn’t have to be big, the protagonist can enter a room, but if there are consequences and deeper meaning, if entering that room makes a difference to the life of the protagonist, then the reader will want to know why.
Are these elements in your first three pages?
As you write your first scene, makes sure these elements are present. Again, Lisa goes into greater detail in her class. If they aren’t there, go back and put them in. Considering these elements will also help you decide what is the right opening to your story.
But again, don’t worry if you don’t have them there the first time you write, or perfect the third time you re-write that opening scene. Because as you write the next scenes and grow your characters and conflicts, deepen the stakes and meaning to your characters, you will find yourself going back to re-write and edit that opening.
When you’ve written the ending, then you can go back to the beginning and make sure that your first paragraph truly gives the reader a glimpse of what is happening, where the story is going and what it is going to be about.
You have a story inside you that needs to be written. Don’t get distracted by perfecting the first three pages before you write the rest of your story.
Until next time…