Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Get a Grip -- In The First 131 Words

By Terry Hickman
2006,
Terry Hickman


If all your stars are lucky, the art and blurbs on the outside of your book will be so attuned to the life you've poured inside it that your reader's already halfway under your spell as she opens the cover.  The lifting of the burden of disbelief has received some advance help from the cover artist and cover copy writers.

But the author seldom has anything to say about her book's cover art.  Worse, oftentimes the artist doesn't even get to read the whole book -- or any of it -- before creating the cover art.

So, left with a cover that may not even have anything to do with the story, you must capture the reader with that first page.  You have to lift the heavy box of disbelief off the floor all by your authorial self.

That would be hard enough on its own, but you also need to draw that reader in and make those first sentences so compelling that the reader has to keep reading.

I tried an exercise recently that really helped me enliven the opening lines of a story.  You can try it with any book whose first page grabbed you into the story.  It's a method I adapted from lots of similar advice I've read about crafting first pages -- but I'm impatient and my time is precious, so I made it a fairly quick method.

I chose Jeff Long's The Descent.  I counted the words of actual text on page 1.  (I ignored the quotations and epigrams at the top of the page.  That's a device that wouldn't have worked for my story.) There are 131 words:

 

In the beginning was the word.

Or words.

Whatever these were.

They kept their lights turned off.  The exhausted trekkers huddled in the dark cave and faced the peculiar writing.  Scrawled with a twig, possibly, dipped in liquid radium or some other radioactive paint, the fluorescent pictographs floated in the black recesses.  Ike let them savor the distraction.  None of them seemed quite ready to focus on the storm beating against the mountainside outside.

With night descending and the trail erased by snow and wind and their yak herders in mutinous flight with most of the gear and food, Ike was relieved to have shelter of any kind.  He was still pretending for them that this was part of their trip.  In fact they were off the map.  He'd never heard

 

When I first picked up the book, that opening got me to turn the page I couldn't not!  What followed kept me reading long past my bedtime, but if the first 131 words hadn't seized my attention, I'd never have gotten to page 2.

How did Long do this?  What's in those few words, and more to the point, do they have something I could apply to my own stories?

 

In the beginning was the word.

 

He's immediately set us up for something Biblical, or at least epic on a Biblical scale.  He's also telling us that this is to be the very beginning of something, and the sense is that it's something Big.

Or words.

Whatever these were.

 

He introduces some confusion here, some mystery.

 

They kept their lights turned off. 

 

This tells us we're in modern times.  If he'd said "torches" or "lanterns," the picture emerging in our mind would be subtly suggestive of an earlier era.

 

            The exhausted trekkers huddled in the dark cave and faced the peculiar writing. 

 

So there are several of them, and they're huddling together in a cave! -- because the space is small?  Cold?  Are they afraid as well as exhausted?

 

Scrawled with a twig, possibly, dipped in liquid radium or some other radioactive paint, the fluorescent pictographs floated in the black recesses. 

 

Here's the central weirdness of this page: pictographs, scrawled with a twig, in fluorescent pigment, a bizarre combination of primitive and very modern concepts -- and they've been given no backing yet, no hint as they float in the blackness of what they're scrawled upon.      

Ike let them savor the distraction.

 

Finally, a person's name: Ike.  Sounds American, and like an ordinary guy.  If it had been Carleton, for example, or Festus, how would your mental picture of him been different? "Ike" carries the baggage of American President Ike Eisenhower: the reluctant hero, the self-effacing leader.  And this Ike seems to have some authority over the huddled trekkers, since he's "letting" them fixate on those mysterious glyphs.

 

None of them seemed quite ready to focus on the storm beating against the mountainside outside.

 

They're inside a mountain cave, then; there's a storm outside, and Ike's group of trekkers seem willing not to face that reality.  Also, it suits Ike, apparently, to put off the moment when they do face it.  Presumably he's exhausted, too, but this tells us he's sensitive to people's moods and when they're capable of coping.

 

With night descending and the trail erased by snow and wind

 

There's no going back tonight!

 

and their yak herders

 

Aha!  The Himalayas!

 

            in mutinous flight with most of the gear and food,

 

No sitting around hoping for rescue, then, either.  And hunger, cold, and discomfort, can be expected.

 

Ike was relieved to have shelter of any kind.

 

He's got a realistic understanding of their predicament, and is grateful for this lucky break.

 

He was still pretending for them that this was part of their trip.  In fact they were off the map. 

 

His trekkers are naive, not seasoned travelers.  And Ike is either trying to avoid their ire, or spare them from fear.

 

(The last three words on page 1, "He'd never heard," are just a fragment and I'll discard them for this exercise.)

 

So that's all we get on that first page.  All? We know we've got an American trek guide and several naive customers holed up in a Himalayan mountain cave without gear or food while a blizzard batters the mountain outside.  They're exhausted and, the guide alone knows, lost.  And there are some mighty peculiar glow-in-the-dark hieroglyphics seemingly floating in the lightless air.

Would you turn the page? Buy the book?  I sure did.

Would you like your books to have the same effect on readers?  Who wouldn't?  But how to do it, that's the question.  I decided to look at one of my own science fiction stories, working title "SKRJ," to see if my beginning was as compelling.  I took the first 131 words and analyzed them as I did The Descent's opening.

Here are the first 131 words from "SKRJ" as accepted by Raechel Moon Henderson at Eggplant Productions:

 

He burst from under my feet in a fountain of snow, throwing me to my back so I floundered for a few seconds before I could get my knife out.  By then he crouched before me, the pelt-traps swinging from his belt, wild-eyed -- and human.

 "Fool!"   I lowered the knife.  "You should be dead."

 "Sorry."  He shoved his knife into its worn-out scabbard.

 Sorry? I looked at him again.  I wouldn't have expected a mentally deficient human to survive for any length of time here in the Swan's Half.  He had long, dark blond hair and bright blue eyes that quirked up at the outside corners, giving his thin, pale face a fey quality.  An intelligent face.

He'd relaxed a little, stood up straight, and I could see he was my height, five-ten.  Small

 

OK, there's a "he." And "we" are in snowy country, somewhere.  And he's human, so there's the implication that the Narrator expected something or someone non-human, and probably dangerous.  "I" am armed with a knife, and "he" is obviously a trapper, so the inference is that this is occurring in primitive times, or a primitive place -- or at least, that modern technology is absent for some reason.  The scorn of the narrator tells us that he or she is accustomed to having the upper hand, maybe a little arrogant.  The worn-out scabbard tells us that the "he" is a veteran outdoorsman, or maybe soldier?  The name of the place where they have this encounter is the Swan's Half, and it's apparently a pretty brutal place to survive.  We get "his" physical description.

And that's it.  We don't even know the gender (or for that matter, the species!) of the narrator.  We know Narrator is arrogant, and about 5 feet 10 inches tall, and that Narrator is apparently a skilled outdoorsperson and is prepared to kill, perhaps predisposed to kill.

This seems awfully vague to me.  I tried again, keeping The Descent in mind:

 

He burst from under my boots in a fountain of snow, throwing me to my back, and I floundered a bit before I could whip my knife out and leap to my feet.  He crouched before me, the pelt-traps swinging from his belt, thin, wild-eyed -- and human.

 

I didn't change much there, just made the Narrator's re-gaining his/her feet specific and immediate.

 

 "Fool!"   I lowered the knife.  "You should be dead."  I felt like killing him just for delaying me.

 

This made the impulse to kill more concrete, and added the information that Narrator was in a hurry when interrupted.

 

"Sorry, Ranger-lady."

 

This line of dialogue establishes the gender of Narrator, and her status: a Ranger.

 

He stood there waiting, placid, holding his shovel.  His shovel!

 

Personality clues: he's calm, not easily agitated, not an instinctive fighter.  The Ranger is capable of at least inward irony and maybe even humor.

 

Sorry?  I studied him.  How could someone so apparently stupid survive for any length of time here in the Swan's Half?  He had long, dark blond hair, blue eyes quirked up at the corners, a fey quality.  An intelligent face.

 

I added the word "apparently" to emphasize the Narrator's sense of the man's incongruity.

 

"Any Slitters around?" I asked.

 

After the surprise of their run-in, here's the first thing on her mind, so it's probably the danger she'd anticipated, and given the odd name, probably not human.

 

He paled.  "No."

 

Two items of information: no Slitters, and the young man is afraid of them.

 

Standing up straight he was my height, five-ten. 

 

Now we know the Ranger is not a tiny woman: five-ten.  I've discarded the single word "small" for the same reasons as I did the sentence fragment in Long's page.

So, let's put it all together like a reader would first encounter it:

 

He burst from under my boots in a fountain of snow, throwing me to my back, and I floundered a bit before I could whip my knife out and leap to my feet.  He crouched before me, the pelt-traps swinging from his belt, thin, wild-eyed -- and human.

"Fool!" I lowered the knife.  "You should be dead." I felt like killing him just for delaying me.

"Sorry, Ranger-lady." He stood there waiting, placid, holding his shovel.  His shovel!

Sorry? I studied him.  How could someone so apparently stupid survive for any length of time here in the Swan's Half? He had long, dark blond hair, blue eyes quirked up at the corners, a fey quality.  An intelligent face.

"Any Slitters around?" I asked.

He paled.  "No."

Standing up straight he was my height, five-ten.

 

I was much more pleased with this opening than the first.  It's got more inherent life and action, and the reader has a better picture of the two people than with the first version.

Raechel liked it better, too.*

Another nice thing about this exercise is that it didn't take long, maybe an hour or two.  Small price to pay for a better whack at grabbing that reader! 

 

*Some weeks later, Eggplant Productions shut down, before publishing "SKRJ." -TH

 THE DESCENT by Jeff Long

Publisher: Jove; Reissue edition (November 1, 2001)

ISBN:  051513175X