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From the very first sentence, a story must revolve around how someone solves an unexpected problem that no matter how hard they try, they simply can't avoid. So what's not surprising at the very first question that's always in the back of our brain--whether we are aware of it or not--when we begin reading a novel or watching a movie is what rapidly escalating problem will the protagonist have to deal with? It's something the reader needs to sense from the get-go. And nothing grabs the brain quicker than a surprise.
That's what ignites our curiosity, after all. If we sense that something isn't quite right, it instantly makes us wonder what's really going on here? So the question is how do you convey this from the very beginning? The answer is by providing the three things that the reader's brain instantly hunts for. Whose story is this? What's happening here? And what is at stake? First, it's important to know from the very beginning whose story it is, because as we'll see, in a story the reader feels what the protagonist feels.
There are our points of entry, and we experience everything that happens based on how it affects them in pursuit of their goal. Are there times when the protagonist doesn't appear on the first page? Of course, but when that happens, two things are necessary. The reader still must have a sense of whose story it will be and everything that happens in those first few pages must in some way affect the protagonist the moment he or she ambles into the story. Second, the only way the reader can want to know what happens next is if something is happening in the first place.
That means you don't want to spend pages setting the stage for what's about to happen or filling us in on things we will need to know later in order for the story to make sense. Instead, you want to plunge us into something that's actually happening. This is what provides the reader with a sense of the big picture. It helps to think of the story as a single problem that gets more complicated as it progresses. Can we glimpse that problem on the first page? And finally, there needs to be something at stake.
If there is nothing at stake, we have no reason to read forward, why? Because there's nothing to be curious about, no conflict that needs to be resolved, no burning question we want answered. Having everything go according to plan is really nice in real life, but it's deadly in a story. Stories are about our expectations not being met and what that forces us to do as a result. Can all this be accomplished on the very first page? Let me give you an example of how all three questions can be answered in the first sentence.
This is the opening sentence of a novel called What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George. And here's the sentence: Joel Campbell, age 11 at the time, began his descent toward murder with a bus ride. Whose story is it? That's easy, Joel Campbell's. What's happening? He is on bus which will somehow trigger his unavoidable descent into murder. What is at stake? Someone's life, not to mention Joel's future. The beauty of it is that, that single sentence then becomes the yardstick by which we can measure everything that happens in the novel. It all adds up because we know where it's going.
Knowing what's at stake allows us to ask of each event. Does this move Joel closer to murder, or does it move him further away? And the more we care about Joel, the more deeply invested we become. Let's explore this a little further by seeing how it works in action with the next movie.
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