When was the last time you picked up a book and said, ‘Gee, I’m so glad that book didn’t get interesting until page 150. That was time out of my busy schedule well spent!’
We’re going to go with…never.
The opening pages of your manuscript are important because they:
- Show the character(s) the reader will be following
- Introduce the style/voice/tone of the book
- Establish the stakes
- Lay out the story’s world to the reader
- Pull the reader in without totally dumping a whole bunch of backstory
The first fifty pages can essentially be described as the first act of the book. Do you present enough conflict within these pages to entice readers to read the rest? Have you established your world and the characters within it? One of the delights of reading is to be transported into a new world. Reading becomes an escape for many people, and the act of reading is a journey in itself. The start of that journey—the first fifty pages—must convey the style and tone of the whole and provide glimpses into how the journey may unfold while still allowing for plenty of surprises along the way.
In terms of “The Hero’s Journey,” or monomyth as famously described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousands Faces, these first fifty pages generally act as a call to adventure for your protagonist. A conflict arises to disrupt the harmony of their life, and they must answer it with action. By the end of the first fifty pages, the hero has crossed or is about to cross the threshold from the known world to the unknown world, where challenge and change await them. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a fantastic example of the monomyth, and by the end of the first fifty pages of the first book in the trilogy, the hero Frodo is set firmly upon his journey east and away from his idyllic life in the Shire. The One Ring is the ultimate MacGuffin to propel Frodo into the unknown.
Now, that may sound like that’s an awful lot to throw in the first fifty pages, and that’s because it is.
Welcome to writing a novel!
But it can be done. It’s important to establish the stakes, what they mean to the main character, and why the reader should care. If the reader doesn’t care enough to find out how the story ends, then they’re obviously not going to finish the story. Simple as that.
The point is to hook the reader as early as possible. Do it in the first fifty pages. Do it in the first chapter. Do it on the first page. The more immediate your conflict and the more dire the consequences for your characters, the better chance it will have of not only being read by an agent or editor, but also being picked up for publication. There’s a reason you fell in love with your favorite books. They almost certainly brought you into their worlds, made you care about the characters, and teased you with intrigue to come, all within the opening pages. So how soon does your story really start? Start it sooner.
Finally, by around the fifty pages mark, there needs to be a shift towards the meaty middle part of the book, where most of the conflict happens. Now that all of the above business is squared away and established, you can use all of that conflict and intrigue to its fullest extent throughout the rest of the novel.
To be automatically entered to have your first fifty pages edited, go to our website at www.andreahurst.com/contact-us/ and sign up for our mailing list, or fill out a Contact Us form. Do both to be entered twice. In the contact form, put the subject as Win First Fifty. This contest will only last until September 21st, so hurry!
Shawn and Sean