Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Guest Post: The Crucial First Pages by Serita Stevens

What a delight to have the prolific Serita Stevens back with us at Write Away. I hope you read her earlier post on script writing a couple of months ago. Not only will this post help all of us who struggle with those critical first pages, but she has two new books out this fall! And, of course, you must already own The Ultimate Writers Workbook for Books and Scripts.

"It was a dark and stormy night."  Those words have been made famous by many including the Peanuts dog, Snoopy. 
While it is a beginning to a story, you have to ask yourself "Is it the best beginning?"
Do you have a great first line - one that not only introduces your protagonist gives us a hint of what will happen?   Have you established the tone of your story?  If it will be comedic, you have to have comedy; if horror, there has to be a hint of scares.
Readers will stand at the bookstore counter and, after reading the back cover, will flip though the first few pages to see if it entices them before putting it back on the shelf.  Script readers will give you a few pages to prove your worth before they dump your script.  In fact, while the pervading myth is that they give you ten pages to hook them, after talking to a number of studio readers I have learned that the facts are they can usually tell from the first page or two if you are a professional writer and if they want to continue reading your script. 
Whether you are writing a book or a script, today's fast paced world demands that you keep the audience attention.  This means engaging them with the main character and his problem as soon as possible; it means engaging us on an emotional level.  After all, it is the universal emotions to which the reader relates and this helps the reader to bon with the character. 
The characters, especially the main character or your protagonist, needs to be introduced within the first two pages at the latest.  This is the person we will be following throughout the story.  It is he who will change and develop in the story.  It is he whom the audience identifies with. 
We don't need to know what color his hair or eyes are, we don't need to know how tall he is, though the type of clothes he is wearing can tell us something about him -pressed pants tell you one thing, while torn jeans and dirty tee-shirt tell you something else. It is the character's personality that we need to experience. 
What is the character's need, his want (which often is two different things,) and his flaw?  We need a hint within the first few pages.  What are his intentions, plans and outer goals?  The writer needs to give the reader a hint of the problem and an idea of how it will get worse.  The goals have to be visual and something that the reader can see and measure the progress by i.e. he will get to point x by the end of the week to rescue his wife or he will accumulate so much money so that he can ransom his daughter.  (This is the outer need, but you have to understand the character's inner need, as well, and that can be totally different.)
While one has to describe the location, to a point, and give the reader a sense of the world that our character inhabits, there is a limit as to the description you are going to give here.   If you get too lost in the narrative of the world, you will lose the reader.    One of the worst problems new writers have is being too descriptive.
Back story has to take a back seat.  (Often new writers tend to tell too much of the character back story and bore the reader.   Hint this in bits and pieces and don't do too much of it until page 50 (book) or Act 2. 
There has to be an incident or a catalyst that starts off the book or script.  This is the hook that pulls the reader into the story.  Is there a time clock started?  Is suspense going?  Is there dramatic irony - that is does the audience know something that the character does not?
The protagonist can be in the middle of something that perhaps has been going on for a while, but it needs to be something that establishes the conflict going on.  This event will showcase the character's humility, fear, need or dream.  It will give us a sense of the complication that he is facing and how he will grow and change.   
However, until we start to bond with the character and identify with him, we won't care if he wins or fails.  Establishing the emotional core from the beginning of your story is of the utmost importance.

So the first ten pages must -
·       Engage us on an emotional level
·       Establish your protagonist and his problem, goal and fears and how the problem will  get worse.
·       Hook the reader's attention with compelling conflict
·       Have strong, vivid characters
·       Establish location and tone
·       Format correctly - this is especially true if you are doing a script
·       Beware of too much exposition
·       Make sure you are starting your story in the right place without too much back story

Happy writing and keep reading. 

An established writer of mystery, crime, historical, thriller, western and young adult novels, as well as several produced and many optioned screenplays, Serita also teaches writing.  Her newest books include The Ultimate Writers Workbook For Books And Scripts - based on her teaching at USC. UCLA and other universities and Against Her Will, a teen drama based on her experiences as a psychiatric nurse. The script/book is now being considered by Lifetime.

Serita has two new books coming out from Oak Tree Press this fall. Heathen Heart is an historical romance about Boudicea's revolt against the Romans in 60 AD (to be released at the end of September), and Deceptive Desires, a female-driven western romantic suspense (released at the end of October).

She frequently lectures at both national and international writing conferences and mentors young writers.

Trained as a forensic nurse, she helps other writers with their medical and investigational questions.  One of her popular book is The Book of Poisons from Writer's Digest for writers to get their poisons correct when killing off their victims.  Recently, it was featured on a Law &Order!!

See more about her at www.seritastevens.com or reach her at sswriter400@gmail.com