On this writing journey, I’ve been introduced to the world of blog-hosted query contests. Extremely generous writers host agent-judged contests for unagented authors. Overall the experiences I’ve had have been positive. I’ve gotten some interest from agents and made connections with some great people. I am so appreciative of these opportunities.
But one thing has perplexed me: most often the entire worth of an entry rests on the first 250 words. I understand that entries cannot be pages and pages long. And I appreciate the opportunity to provide a snippet of my writing to go along with my pitch. However, I’ve seen fantastic concepts and writing criticized and passed by because there is not enough action in the first 250 words. That’s the first page of a novel, by the way. I’ve also been told I “need to get to the action quicker”. It’s almost as though if there is not an explosion or a catastrophe in the first 250 words, the book is deemed unreadable. And I write YA Contemporary. These are coming-of-age stories. There are no explosions.
It’s crazy. Right? Throughout all my years of schooling, not one teacher or professor told me to give up on a book if it didn’t excite me by the end of the first page. I’m a teacher of English, and the very nature of story structure (4 parts of plot) indicates the beginning is aimed at setting up characters, conflict, and setting. Sure, in the first chapter there should be some sort of inciting event that sets things in motion and grabs the reader’s attention, but geez, give a writer a chapter not just a page. A story should develop, it should build. It should be allowed to unfold in a natural way.
So, perplexed by this seemingly common perception that a first page has to get right to the action, I set out to review the first pages of wildly successful YA novels. Maybe everyone was right, and I’d somehow missed this. But guess what? Hardly any of them have any sort of action in the first page. In fact, many employ strategies that are deemed “failures”: waking up, descriptions of people or places, getting ready/staring in the mirror. Most of these first 250 words wouldn’t get any requests in these contests.
To illustrate my point, below is the first page from The Hunger Games.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.
Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. –The Hunger Games
This wildly successful novel begins with the character waking up (something that I’ve read is a no-no) and loads of description. I understand what is going on–the author is setting the scene and building character traits and motivation. And the first chapter does indeed have an inciting event. But the reaping doesn’t happen on page one. It happens later, when I’ll really understand and care about what’s happening because I will have had the background set for me.
I believe this is what a first 250 should do. It should begin a slow unfolding of the story, like a red carpet inviting me to take a walk into a new world. By the end of that first chapter, the carpet will be fully stretched out for me to make my decision–step on or take a pass. But before that, it should be allowed to unroll bit by bit. With or without explosions.