The Burden of Your First Fifty Pages

I critique a lot of first chapters of novels. Having written twenty novels, I can attest to how difficult it is to craft those openings scenes. So much has to be included to set up the world of the characters, the premise, the tone and writing style, and the opening situation the protagonist is in. Yet, so much has to be left out in order to avoid backstory and info dumps that stall action and pacing.

It takes a lot of time and effort to master opening scenes.

These scenes are some of the most critical ones in your novel, so it behooves me to share what I wrote in a post a couple of years back. And I would like to encourage you to take advantage of my special discounted price on my fifty-page critique.

I do dozens of fifty-page critiques every year. I don’t know the exact count, but it’s what I encourage writers to start with when requesting help with their WIP (whether partially done or completed).

Why fifty and not one hundred? Why not twenty pages?

Fifty pages seems to be just the right number to get a feel for all those important elements.

We spent months awhile back looking at first pages and all that’s needed on those pages. If you missed those posts, do a search for first pages and you’ll find them. My first-page checklist is handy to use, to help you see the needed elements that should be on your first page.

But that’s just the first page.

So let me run down some of the things you need in those opening chapters.

  1. Setup of a strong, compelling, empathetic protagonist. I’m starting with this one because this must be accomplished quickly. You need your reader to bond with your protagonist in the first page or two (of the first scene he or she is in). Unless you have a terrific prologue to launch your story (meaning, it’s just what your premise and story line need), you should be starting your novel with your protagonist. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but if you’re a novice writer, I would highly recommend this course. If you’re not clear on how to create a compelling protagonist, read some of my posts on the topic. Just know, though, this is paramount. Without that compelling protagonist, your novel is going to flop.
  2. Get the protagonist’s core need, motivation, and life situation clear. You might think this is a no-brainer, but this is severely lacking in a lot of manuscripts I critique. Part of setting up that main character is revealing these key facets about him. Start your story in the middle of something important happening in his life that will reveal his living situation, his immediate problems and concerns, his work and lifestyle, his deepest hopes and dreams and fears. This is all key to story structure and preparation for the inciting incident to come.
  3. Present the inciting incident. This comes close to the start of your novel. Usually by the 10% mark. But when you are just starting your novel, you don’t know what will end up being 10%. So it’s easier to think in terms of scenes. Get the opening scene or two setting things up so you can slam your character with that incident. Or you might have that disturbance come at the end of the first scene. But I’ll say this, from experience, that it’s tricky to throw that incident in so early. Without proper setup of your protagonist, which means risking the bond and concern for what happens to him, that incident may fall flat. You need to first get your reader to like, care, and understand—to some extent—what he’s about.
  4. Introduce key supporting characters. These opening chapters need to set up your protagonist’s world populated by character types: family, friends, rivals, love interests, etc. These all need clear roles and should have unique personalities and voices (which includes the narrative voice if they have their own POV scenes).
  5. Hint at the stakes, and make them high. I wish I didn’t have to pound on this, but I do. Few novels have high stakes, and few present them early on. The more stakes, both personal and public, you can create, the better. But they need to be believable and appropriate. In other words, if you have a boring, weak concept without any kicker, throwing in a ton of danger and conflict that is random and meaningless won’t do anything to hype up the tension in your story. Again, I have gobs of posts and chapters in my writing craft books on conflict, stakes, and tension. Do your homework if you need to learn all this.
  6. Get that protagonist’s goal in sight! Fifty pages will sometimes get you to that 25% mark in the novel, at which point the hero’s goal for the novel is locked into place. If you’re writing a long novel, by page fifty, your character might not be at that turning point yet, but he should be getting close. All scenes should be propelling your character to that important point. What I see in a lot of novels is a string of scenes, random events and interchanges that don’t seem to have any point to them.

While there is a whole lot more needed in the opening chapters, these are just some key ones that you need to be aware of.

Here’s the thing: if you haven’t written a lot of novels and gotten professional feedback to show you what you’re missing or weak in, you may spend years pumping out drafts of novels and getting nowhere.

Just like many who do NaNo each year. It’s a waste of time unless all you want to do is see if you can whip out 50,000 words.

But I’m hoping that you want to become a great writer and pen terrific books, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Get a Critique!

And so here’s what I suggest. In addition to reading all your can (books, blog posts) and attending conferences and workshops and listening to podcasts, get a critique.

It helps so much to have someone point out to you your strengths and weaknesses. Sure, a critique is subjective, and you may not agree with everything said or recommended. And that’s fine; it’s your story. But I’ve found that writers who submit to a critique and apply what they’re hearing make fast progress in their writing.

All these blog posts and charts and books and online courses I create for you are to help you fast track to success. So you don’t waste years writing stuff that just isn’t working and won’t sell.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve written a full draft or only a partial. If you have fifty double-spaced pages, consider this: it may be the best money spent in your writing journey. Because once you see what you need to work on, you can focus on that and ace it. If you don’t, those flaws will be like heavy chains around your neck that you carry everywhere you go.

Take a look at some of the things I cover in my critiques. And BTW this is a great checklist (another one!) that you can download and print out. Use it on your own work or share it with critique partners.

You can submit your first fifty pages and pay HERE.

I know editors who charge $250 or more to critique just ten pages! For $395, I’ll give you an intensive analysis of your first fifty pages, with attention paid to both your micro (word and sentence level) and macro (big-picture items) elements.

It may be some of the best money you spend on writing help this year. If you’re uncertain that you’re nailing your opening scenes, hire me! All you have to do is veer over to my critique website, fill out the form, upload your Word doc (send me about 55 pages plus a synopsis), and pay. Easy peasy!

Don’t fret or wander confused. Let me help you nail those scenes. That will give you just what you need to move forward on your novel.

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  1. I so look forward to everything you post. I save, I print, I share with others.

    I wish you would come to Southern California.

    Your voice encourages my writing spirit. Thank you.

  2. Hello! Thank you so much for this post. I’m so glad I’m not the only one feeling like there’s this great big pressure over the first few pages. I’m starting my series out with a novella – a small story before the story – because I felt like more needed to be told on what formed the main antagonist.

    The other day I started having anxiety about it because I realized, six pages in, that the first few paragraphs are what’s going to define my career as an author. I know it’s just the first draft; the fixing can and will come later. But it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one out there with this fear.

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