Monday, March 29, 2010
The First 50
By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
First an apology for missing last week's post - I was in Australia and entered an internet black hole in rural Victoria from which I could not emerge until Tuesday!Now, I'm back and apart from a wee bit of jetlag (I never get over the confusion that it's tomorrow in Australia already!), I'm also back online.
James' great post yesterday on the importance of the opening line prompted me to think about the next crucial thing an agent usually looks for - a slam-dunk first 50 pages. When I was submitting manuscripts that was what agents typically requested after they had initially viewed a query letter and (possibly) the first chapter or detailed synopsis. How well I remember sweating over those first 50 pages when my agent asked for them to be sent.
Today, I still believe the first 50 pages are critical. Accounting for roughly the first 3 chapters or so, they are the vehicle by which the writer demonstrates his or her mastery of voice, plot and character and they establish the promise of the story to come: the hook that draws a reader in, the tension between the characters that will help propel the plot forward and the pace of how the mystery is likely to unfold. I have no doubt that agents can tell on the first page whether the writing is up to snuff but (in my opinion) it's the first 50 pages that shows them whether the writer is likely to be able to deliver on the promise displayed on that first page.
In a classic novel 'pyramid' structure the first 50 pages (or so) help establish the status quo as well as the conflict or situation that is about to upend all of that. It is essential in these first chapters that the characters' relationships and conflicts are brought into play. I also view these first chapters as the key to grounding the story - not by bogging it down in back story or exposition - but in drawing the reader into the world you have created so they are committed and compelled to continue reading. I need to have a clear sense of time and place established, be able to visualize and care about the main characters and understand their motivations. Achieving all this can be a challenge. Here are some of the pitfalls that inexperienced writers should try and avoid in those first 50 pages.
Packing it all in
Too much back story and character exposition can grind the story to a halt and nothing is more disappointing than reading a terrific first chapter, full of action, only to find the second chapter mired in explanations, background and description. The key is to continue to intrigue a reader with partial disclosures - everything doesn't need to be revealed in one second or third chapter informational dump.
Equally well, a breakneck plot that charges through the first 50 pages without stopping for breath can leave a reader disorientated and confused. I still believe a balance is needed in the first few chapters so that the reader can receive enough grounding in terms of the key characters to care about their circumstances. Thrills and spills are not enough.
Voice confusion/lack of strong POV
As James noted yesterday POV confusion can destroy an opening page - it can equally well derail the first few chapters. Writers need to beware of introducing multiple POVs in the early chapters that dilute the 'voice' or which confuse a reader. I think the strength of a great opening lies in establishing the voice that will move the story forward - and that counts for every chapter not just the first one.
So what do you think needs to be achieved in the critical 'first 50'? What other pitfalls do you see, as writers and readers? What can you tell about a manuscript in the first 5o pages?