08 September 2016

Your first 50 pages

This post is the latest in a series of posts inspired by my participation in Pitch to Publication. Having looked at a lot of authors' pages back in March (and having had the incredibly good fortune of getting to work with several of those people since then), I began to notice some patterns in what grabs me and where manuscripts fall down. So far I've talked about the first 5 pages, the Darkest Moment, the word count, the #p2p16 query letter, chapters (length, breaks, headings, etc.), and the novel's overall structure. Today I'm tackling your novel's first 50 pages, what I referred to in the structure post as Act I.

What should your first 50 pages accomplish? They should hook readers and set up expectations for the journey we're going to be on: the novel's tone and pacing, the setting (world-building), who the story is about, what this story is going to be about thematically, and what the primary external conflict involves.

I've already written a post on the first 5 pages, but I want to take this opportunity to add an addendum. Personally, I love to see at least hints of the novel's main theme(s) and the main character's inner conflict/fatal flaw within the first 5 pages. But if that's not possible (because there's more than one MC, because the first 5 pages are a prologue or told from a different POV, etc.), then it for sure needs to happen by p. 15.

Okay. So in the first 5 pages we've hooked the reader and the 1st inciting incident has taken place (or is just about to take place). What then?

Usually between 1st and 2nd incidents, we see the ground beneath the characters' feet begin to tremble. The characters are trying to make minor adjustments while going on with their lives, and we see that they're struggling to do that. They want to keep their preexisting goals, stay in their comfort zones. Perhaps they even try to ignore the implications of the 1st incident.

But when the 2nd incident happens, it becomes clear that getting on with business as usual isn't going to be an option anymore. Something has happened and the characters have to deal with it. Now. Or something that the character expected to happen (wife coming home, promotion) doesn't happen, and the consequences are urgent. And this 2nd inciting incident, I argue, needs to come at or before p. 50.

Now what I'm about to say may sound harsh, but it is my truth. I don't care how beautiful the writing is or how intriguing the characters are: if I still don't know what this book is about* 50 pages in, that's a huge red flag for me. I start to question the author's ability to tell a story. Unless this book was recommended to me by someone whose taste I trust or assigned as part of a class, I will stop reading. I didn't pick up this 300-page book solely for the purpose of reading beautiful sentences. You promised me a story, and I want you to deliver on that promise. And one of the ways I know you're delivering is by giving me that 2nd inciting incident by p. 50.

[*Note: I need to believe I know what this book is about by p. 50. Maybe the Turning Point reveals that this book is totally not what I thought it was, and that can be a thrilling surprise (see the 2002 film He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not starring Audrey Tatou; La Moustache, 2005, starring Vincent Lindon; or Memento, 2000, starring Guy Pearce as examples). But what I'm talking about here is a clear sense of direction. And in my experience, the 2nd inciting incident is what gives us that sense of direction.]

But in addition to giving us those two inciting incidents, the first 50 pages have to introduce us to your world and characters and set up our expectations of how you're going to be telling this story.

Characters and world
By the end of Act I, we need to have a good sense of setting and who the characters are, what they want, what they fear, and what inner conflicts or flaws they'll need to face in the book's climax and/or Darkest Moment.

That last part is important: you need to understand your main character's arc. They can't come into the book with all the tools necessary; they either have to grow from the events of the story (triumphant ending) or they end up not being able to change enough or soon enough (tragic ending). Either way we need to get a sense of what the character's limitations are, what patterns they've been stuck in that they're going to have to break free of if they're going to triumph.

Art by Maciej Skrzynski
We also need to have a sense of the existing interpersonal conflicts between characters that will be creating tension along the way. This is not to say that new conflicts won't arise, just that we need to understand where we're starting from.

There's a catch, though. We have to do all this stealthily. Character development and world-building can't be the primary purpose of any scene; it has to be worked into scenes that show the main character grappling with the 1st inciting incident.

On a related note, we don't want a ton of backstory dumped on us - not in the first 50 pages, not anywhere - no matter how important it is later. This too must be done stealthily. If the villain is the hero's ex-girlfriend, we can introduce the details slowly over time. First her name comes up in conversation, and our hero pushes away the pain and guilt of the memory, vowing never to abandon anyone again. Later, he's making coffee and feels a stab of longing because she was much better at making coffee than he was. Later still, we learn the reason for his guilt: following orders, he left her behind on the battlefield even though he wasn't sure she was dead. Etc. It's a gradual build-up, not an info-dump.

How you're going to tell the story
The narrative voice needs to be consistent (or consistently inconsistent, if you're making that craft decision). The first 50 pages should also contain the emotional range your book intends to explore: humor, tension, sadness, etc. Obviously you're not going to hit an emotional peak within the first 50 pages - that's what the climax is for - but I recommend that the first 50 pages at least touch on all the emotions we're going to be regularly experiencing. It sets the tone.

The first 50 pages should also set the pacing, which is dependent on prose style, chapter length and break choices, and on how much stuff happens. If the chapters in the first 50 pages are all relatively short, I will continue to expect that from the rest of the book. If it's a super fast-paced read because a lot happens and the prose style supports it, I will expect the rest of the book to move just as swiftly. Or if little external action happens because it's more about the character's interior, and the prose style is languid and floral, using complex sentence structures, I will expect that to continue.

Lastly, if the story is told from more than one POV, I strongly recommend introducing all the POVs (or at the very least, those characters) by p. 50. Again, this is about setting up accurate expectations.

Are there exceptions?
Yes, of course. There are no fast-and-hard rules in storytelling. In fact a lot of really interesting fiction breaks conventions. My point here is to raise these issues so that you can make conscious, more informed decisions about craft. So that when you get to the editing phase and you're looking at readers' feedback, you can use this information to identify some of the reasons things aren't working and come up with a workable solution.

Last word
Before I go, I want to reiterate something I mentioned in my last post. The advice I'm giving in this series is not meant to guide your drafting process. It's meant to help you during planning and editing. When I sit down to plan a novel, I try to envision what the two inciting incidents will be and I do a bunch of freewriting about characters so that I understand them and their motivations. Later - after I have a complete first draft and some initial reader feedback - I will go back and think about whether the things mentioned in this post are showing up in the first 50 pages. But when I go to actually write a draft, I let go of all that and let it come.

I'd love to hear what you think of this post. Please leave a comment below!

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