Have you ever met somebody who you just didn’t like?
I’m not talking about hatred. That’s different.
I’m talking about the feeling you get around somebody who just didn’t rub you the right way.
Chances are, your opinion of that person was primarily influenced by your first time meeting them. Maybe it was the way they smelled. Maybe it was that flimsy handshake they gave you, or the fact that they burped without saying “excuse me”.
Either way, you couldn’t help but walk away thinking, “Sorry bud – I won’t be adding you on Facebook anytime soon.”
That’s the power of a first impression.
Within the first ten minutes of meeting somebody you could ruin a potentially fruitful business relationship or form a bond that will last a lifetime. Ruin a first impression, and you’ll have to work twice as hard. Ace a first impression and you will only have to work half as hard.
In creative writing, the same rules apply.
We like to think readers will give our material a fair, honest look-through. After all, we’ve poured countless hours researching, plotting, brainstorming, writing, and editing. It’s what we rightfully deserve, right?
The average reader who is looking for a new book to read has an attention span of maybe five minutes or so (and those are the generous ones). If your story does not leave a good first impression, then readers will not hesitate to put your story aside and look for something better.
And why shouldn’t they? There are probably millions of books in the world. There’s no reason wasting time on ones that don’t take the effort to start on the right footing.
What does a good ‘first impression’ mean for a fiction writer?
The minute a reader glances at the first page of your story, a battle begins.
In a world of countless distractions vying for an average person’s attention, it’s your responsibility as a fiction writer to make sure they become so ensnared in your story that they can’t think about anything else.
The first few pages are prime territory to pull this off – however, few writers can do so masterfully.
It is usually not small errors that turn off a reader (though an abundance of them will). More so, it’s a collection of nasty habits that are apparent from as early as the first page of their story.
Throughout my reading and research, I’ve found that there are four particularly bad habits writers consistently make to ruin their work.
What are they, you ask?
1. They start with weather openings.
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
Let me stop you right there.
Perhaps in the days of Dickens or Austen readers would gladly read through blocks of description. Unfortunately, now things are different.
The modern day reader rarely wants to mull through the writer’s attempt to set the scene. We have short attention spans and shorter patience for stories that don’t get straight to the point.
If you want to add weather (or any description) into your first few scenes, remember the axiom less is more.Sprinkle details in moderately so it blends into the story organically rather than sticking out as contrived.
John wiped sweat off of his forehead with one hand and squeezed the binoculars with the other. He glanced out the window.
“You see him?” John said.
Richie shook his head and took a quick swish of water. “Nah,” he said. “I don’t think the guy’s going to show. Can we get the AC unit now?”
They sat in silence for a few moments.
John began dozing out for a moment, thinking about a nice cold can of Pepsi, when he felt Richie tense up next to him.
“There he is,” he said.
Now, this paragraph isn’t going to win any awards anytime soon, but it demonstrates my point: though I’ve made it clear that this scene takes place in a car on a hot day, I didn’t stop to dedicate an entire paragraph on the situation. I maintained a consistent rhythm throughout the scene, creating a much more fluid story and not giving my reader a chance to feel bored.
2. There’s no immediate conflict.
Writers tend to use the “happy beginning” tactic in the first part of their stories. They believe if they show their characters happy, with everything going normal, then when the story really starts to pick up we’ll feel more emotionally connected to the situation.
Sadly, this rarely works.
As a writer, you have one job: grab your reader by the throat on page one and keep them in a death grip until the end of the book.
Though all rules tend to have exceptions, I think this may be the one rule that does not. Without conflict, you do not have a story worth reading. Without immediate conflict, or the foreboding sense of conflict, you do not hold readers interests for that long.
Sure, things may start to heat up in the second or third chapter, but what are the chances of a publisher or reader making it that far?
3. The characters are static, boring, or not there at all.
Don’t have your characters just sitting around sipping tea and chatting about last week’s football game.
Kurt Vonnegut said it best when he said “every character should want something, even if it is a glass of water”.
From page one, give your character something that allows them to be active, and hopefully show off their qualities that will help hook your reader to continue.
Remember, a reader will trundle through an average plot for a character that they feel a real, honest connection with.
4. Too much narrative.
This problem is rampant among writers, and for a very understandable reason. It ties into every writer’s insecurity.
You see, when we sit down to write, we tend to have so much information running through our heads that we feel the reader needs to know right away.
If you look at the first chapter of many novels, it is simply the author spoon-feeding you information because he or she is afraid that you are not going to figure it all out right away.
But you know what?
I don’t feel like you should know it all from the get-go.
Readers need certain things to not be answered immediately – it piques interest. The art of using timing, as a writer, is crucial. Add bits of information as the story progresses, but always less than the reader actually needs. Only when the story reaches near the end should all of the pieces come together to form the big idea that makes up your entire story.
Mastering these elements is not an easy task. However, if you develop even moderate proficiency in these areas, you will stand ahead of 95% of the writers who are burping without saying "excuse me", staining up their shirts, and giving weak handshakes.
In other words, those writers who are not leaving a good first impression.