Most editors, publishers, and agents have a dirty little secret every writer should know. (They don’t always read your entire submission.) They do if it’s good, of course. They probably do when it’s borderline good, but that is questionable. I have it on good authority (a highly placed source) that most editors make their preliminary decision on whether to accept a piece or not before they finish the second page.
In other words, if you don’t impress them within the first two pages, you’ve probably missed your chance. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your climax and resolution are if the person reading it doesn’t ever get that far.
Okay. So how do we do that? How do we keep our works from ending up in the reject pile?
By making the first two pages so good they compel the reader to continue.
First, we need to make our opening line exemplary. It has to be better than good. It has to be the bait that draws the reader in and then sets the hook without missing. Ever. It needs to be as close to perfect as possible. It needs to be as perfect as we can make it.
The first line can set the piece’s mood, introduce the main character, the setting, the conflict and the author’s major and minor themes. But it must do all this heavy lifting with the grace and beauty we strive for in our prose. The only way we can accomplish this is through the age-old method of re-writing and revision.
It is said (by Diogenes Laertius, actually) that the Greek philosopher Plato re-wrote the opening sentence of his masterpiece The Republic some twenty times. That was just the opening line. Nobody, from the most amateur among us to the most accomplished professional or lauded author of classical literature, creates art the first time she puts pen on paper. The true mark of the professional is the willingness to do that heartrending work of re-writing and trying to create the perfect first line. Thus Paul Gallico’s famous quotation on writing: “…sit at the typewriter, open your veins and bleed.”
If it was easy, everyone would do it.
The second measure we need to take to make our first two pages as good as possible, is to make sure we begin our action in what the literary critics call in media res (Latin for “in the middle of things.”) The days of a gradual build up to the action are long gone (Dickens hasn’t had a new story published in years). These days, readers (and the editors who cater to them) want everything to start NOW. If yours is a murder mystery tale, the murder needs to take place immediately, not fifty pages into the novel.
Now that isn’t saying we now can, or should, ignore the classic pyramid structure of fiction, or discard the idea of a beginning, middle, and end to a story. They are “classic” because the ideas are valid and effective; we can’t afford to ignore them.
What we can do is use the classic ideas more creatively. Perhaps we can use the beginning, middle and end in a different way, such as Edgar Allan Poe did in the beginning of “The Cask of Amontillado.”
“The thousand injuries of Fortunado I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”
Edgar Allan Poe was a master and what he did in this story was condense the first two parts of the story into the opening. By paragraph four, we are into the climax of the story and the rest is how the climax is achieved. There is nothing in the rule that says we need to have a beginning, middle, and end, that says they all need to be the same size or of any particular size relative to each other. The beginning could be one sentence, or most of the story. The ending could be the majority of the tale as in Poe’s work, or it could be one final word.
There is also nothing to say that the parts need to be in any particular order. The beginning does not have to precede the middle, which does not have to precede the end. We can be creative. We can begin with the middle and fill in the beginning with flashbacks.
Whatever we decide to do, we must remember that the goal is to create a work in which the first two pages are so dramatic, so compelling, the reader has no choice but to continue with the rest of the story. This is important in a general way (we all want our readers to read our work, after all) but it is crucial when presented to an editor or agent.
The editor is presented with many more works than they have room to publish. We must give them absolutely no reason to set our work aside. That means creating the best first line and most interesting first pages they have ever seen.