See you next week!
by William F. Rombola
The pavement was a scab covering a wound that wouldn’t heal. All his life, Jack had longed to scratch it, to peel up the layers, and expose the malignant thing poisoning Miami’s heart.
Car horns echoed off the skyscrapers surrounding the excavation. The drawbridge crossing the river had been raised, transforming the streets into parking lots and filling the air with exhaust. Jack blinked sweat from his eyes and then peered through the viewing scope of the electronic transit. The instrument magnified and tunneled his vision. Heat rose from the pavement in languid waves, lending an illusory quality to the backhoe and the young woman standing before it.
Luisa’s curly brown hair spilled from her bandanna down her tanned shoulder as she directed the backhoe to scrape away the layers of pavement and fill that had covered the grounds of the Royal Palm Hotel for the last eighty years. After a final pass, the backhoe operator dumped a pile of soil on the pavement beside her, retracted the bucket, and cut the engine.
Taking advantage of the quiet, Jack got on the handheld radio. “Can you go down into the basement again?”
Luisa turned, flashed him a grin and then nodded. “What for?”
“I’m gonna dig a test pit beneath the wine room floor, but first we need to map it.”
“What’s his name isn’t going to like you tearing up the ruins,” Luisa said, as she grabbed the prism rod and approached the edge of the excavation block.
“You let me worry about him,” Jack said.
He watched Luisa step off the edge of the pavement, drop two feet in elevation, and land in 1926. She then crossed what was once the neatly manicured ground of the Royal Palm Hotel, her boots kicking up a cloud of dust behind her as she negotiated the desiccated landscape of sand, broken brick, and exposed limestone. A local reporter tried to talk to her, but she ignored him and continued on her way. Upon reaching the ruins, she climbed over the crumbling brick foundation and down another couple feet into the basement.
The girl was painfully shy, and he could hardly blame her. The injuries she’d suffered during that hurricane had left her with amnesia. Her mind had dealt with the pain in much the same way as Miami had dealt with the destruction of the Royal Palm Hotel, by burying it. But nothing stays buried forever.
Comments by Heidi (Senior Editor at Eschler Editing)
A strong point of this first page are the great descriptions, given in a fresh, interesting voice. A hint of mystery (nothing stays buried forever) is a nice tease, and hints that something bad will be coming. We also get some subtle hints of other problems – such as references to a hurricane and Louisa’s amnesia. The tone was interesting enough to catch my attention. Of course, once you’ve caught a reader’s attention, the trickier half of the equation is keeping it.
Is this sci-fi/fantasy or just metaphorical realism? Is it archeology or hurricane cleanup? Is Louisa shy or not?
This may or may not be fantasy. But the first paragraph alludes to the city as a living entity, dealing with a malignant wound. Nice metaphor, and if you intend this to be a fantasy, it works. But if you are aiming for contemporary fiction of any type, you will be giving mixed signals to your readers. There is an unspoken agreement between author and audience. The audience expects the author to establish the rules and parameters of the new world they are entering. In a way, they are very trusting for the first few pages. Maybe overly trusting. Because they will take many things at face value initially. So your genre will predicate not only the words you use but the readers’ response to them.
There are other mixed signals in this first page. Is this an archeology dig? That was my first impression. But other references make it equally likely that this is the clean-up effort after a big storm.
How about the intriguing phrase “landed in 1926”? Again, the first fleeting thought a reader may have is that this is going to be a story about time travel. Obviously, the sentences right after will probably convince the reader this isn’t a time travel story. But when combined with personification of the city, as well as other contradictory information, the reader may be excused for being a little unanchored as they try to determine what way the story is heading, what type of story they find themselves in, and what the actual problem is going to be.
What about Louisa? We are told she’s shy, but she comes across as confident and capable. She’s grinning, she’s giving orders to the back-hoe operator. She doesn’t strike us as shy. She does ignore the reporter, but that could be out of anger, annoyance, or not wanting to give a comment.
At this point, there is no clear cut intro to an inciting incident or a story-worthy problem. There are a few tantalizing hints: Louisa has amnesia, and something is buried, presumably in her subconscious. Then there are the references to something malignant at the heart of the city. If this is fantasy – something wicked this way comes. If this is something more literal – it could be hinting at corruption in the city government, or some past crime that has been covered up. But at the end of the day – the page, I mean – the reader still will be vague on what type of problem they are facing. I say they, because when we read, we subconsciously place ourselves in the character’s shoes, which explains why a reader can be a little impatient when information vital to their well-being (in other words, the character’s well-being) is not forthcoming in a clear, easy-to-understand manner.
Let’s take a look at some random examples. These are mostly first sentence/first paragraphs that introduce some type of problem. As you can see, it doesn’t matter what genre or style you are writing in, because this rule is practically universal.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine – “That fool of a fairy Lucinda not intend to lay a curse on me.”
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”
Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt – “I was sixteen years old the day I was lost in the forest, sixteen the day I met my death.”
My Fair Godmother by Janet Rallison – “Boys weren’t a problem for Jane. They only paid attention to her while asking for help with homework. She always knew the answers. See, no problem at all.”
Or how about John Grisham’s old classic, The Client: “Mark was eleven and had been smoking on and off for two years, never trying to quit but being careful not to get hooked.” Obviously, there’s a problem, although in this case, the smoking is just the tip of the iceberg of problems bearing down on Mark. But it’s a great example of using a smaller problem as a transition to the main problem.
Even 200 years ago, Jane Austen knew this rule. Take a look at Pride and Prejudice. The first two pages establishes (and indeed, it’s hinted at in the well-known first line) what the problem is going to be. All the rest – how the story plays out, are merely details embellishing and explaining how the problem (needing to find suitable husbands for five unmarried daughters) will play out.
Other authors grabbed at random from my bookshelf show similar results – Mary Higgins Clark, Brad Thor and Daniel Silva’s espionage novels, Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge mysteries. Start analyzing the first page or two of just about any story, and you’ll find regardless of genre, this tends to be a common element of successful storytelling.
You are under no obligation to name the problem in the first sentence, although if you have a great first line that also includes the crux of the conflict, it can be a great tool. The rule of thumb is that within the first five pages, the conflict should be apparent. If you can put at least a taste of it in the first page, even better. You’ll notice that the examples given here do mention the conflict, and at the same time, leave the pleasure of discovering the how and what and why for the reader to discover.
What your first page needs to do, ideally: establish setting, voice, introduce characters and their basic relationship with each other and the world around them, and set up the problem, even if we don’t get down to all the nitty-gritty details until later in the story. Whew! That’s a tall order for a first page to fill. But those are the rules of the game, and if you can find a way to creatively fulfill them, you’re going to have a great start. I know, a few lucky people figure a way to break the rules. But it’s usually best not to assume you are going to be one of the lucky ones. Instead, I’d recommend fixing the areas that give readers an ambiguous mental image of what is happening and make sure you have a definitely stated problem, and you’ll strengthen your story and keep the reader on the hook. Good luck and happy writing!