Sunday, October 29, 2017

Seducing Your Readers With a Perfect Page One

The perfect first page. Everything hinges on it.

Agents and publishers, readers and critics will snap-judge your piece, perhaps not even consciously, by those opening words. Call it unfair. Call it superficial. But as writers we work in the attention industry, and now more than ever there are a innumerable suitors for a person's attention. You have one page to convince them that your voice is worth listening to. One chance to seduce them into the intimate relationship that is the writer/reader.

What makes a seductive first page? There is no fine-cut answer. If there was, everybody would know it and everybody would do it. But like courtship there are a few things people who are good at it instinctively know that the rest of us blunder to emulate.

The Tease
In some allegorical way, seducing readers
is not much different than courtship
The subtle art of the tease. The careful transmission of hints and signals that promise something more. A taste of pretty prose. A gentle brush of the fingertips abruptly retracted. Tease the reader and they will come crawling to you for more.

Draw from the Carnal
The human body is a slave to its desires and emotions. Often it will abandon reason in pursuit of them. Touch on basal human motivations: love, fear, adventure. A writer who taps in to carnal desire draws in the reader implacably.

Make Promises but Give No Satisfaction
You are about to lie to the reader. Fiction, after all, is a synonym for lies. Force them to suspend their disbelief with promises of your talent: gorgeous writing, world-building so visceral it breathes, story twisted with mystique. Raise questions the reader must have answered. Hold those answers close until that perfect moment of revelation.

Avoid Too Much Makeup
Dressing prose too extravagantly renders it superficial. Understatement and word economy give the reader the pleasure of thinking they unwound the clues for themselves even if you guided them every step of the way. Great writers say more with less. Avoid the accouterments of desperation. Highlight strengths but keep it classy.

Leave Out Discussions of Marriage
Pushing a reader too far too fast is a quick way to frighten them back into the shadows. Prime them for a thrilling ride; don't heave your story and your prose at them with groping abandon. The most important stuff, the grand finale, should come with flawless timing.


Enough of the allegory and the double entendre. Let's move to something concrete.

Here is the first paragraph (the maximum amount I'm comfortable posting here without risking copyright violation) of The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. This novel and its sequel The Obelisk Gate were both winners of the Hugo Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in speculative fiction. I am using this example because it worked seamlessly on me. It exemplifies many of the qualities I've tried to articulate in this post. 

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin provides
a well-crafted example of an excellent
first page
Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.

First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over in the days to come, as she imagines how her son died and tries to make sense of something so innately senseless. She will cover Uche’s broken little body with a blanket—except his face, because he is afraid of the dark—and she will sit beside it numb, and she will pay no attention to the world that is ending outside. The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time. She’s old hat at this by now.

This powerful beginning strikes at profound basal emotions and simultaneously raises questions the reader needs answered.

"Let's start with the end of the world...Get it over with and move on to more interesting things."

We have something provocative, an apocalypse, but also the promise of "things" even more interesting. This sentence oozes with tension, intrigue and the possibility of adventure.

Next comes a strikingly powerful yet understated scene: a mother laying a blanket over the broken body of her deceased son. The little touch that she doesn't cover his face because he is "afraid of the dark" speaks volumes in just a few words. No need for over-explanation, so much is learned about the setting, the character and the plot one simple stroke of the author's pen. The reader gets an immediate sense of the child's age, his vulnerability, and, thereby, the weight of this tragedy. There is no need to explicitly state the main character's heartbreak or her driving motivations.

This short excerpt is a tease that begs for more. How did the child die? How did the world end? And wait, the world has ended before and the main character has experienced the end of both worlds, within and without, previously?

So many questions. Such tantalizing courtship. This is the type of finely crafted first page I strive for. One that strikes powerful emotional chords and seduces the reader with promises of tension, excitement and adventure. The stage for what promises to be a powerful, exciting and emotional novel is set in just seven sentences.

I am compelled to read on.

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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions 

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