We’ve been thinking of stories in terms of three acts: beginning, middle, and end, for at least the last 2350 years or so—since the publication of Aristotle’s Poetics. I think we probably all “get it,” at least in its simplest terms, but for me there’s another side of that three-act coin.
Other than as a way to organize the plot of your novel, what other significance do these three acts carry? It’s interesting to think about the life cycle of a book in terms of those three acts as well. The beginning of the book’s life is the author actually writing it. The middle is its time with the “gatekeepers” (agents and editors), and the end is its time with readers. And how your book finds its way from your computer screen through the gatekeepers and to your readers’ hands is intrinsically tied to the writing itself.
I’ve written about the importance of the first line of a short story or the first paragraph of a novel. This is your one chance to make a first impression. There’s a lot of pressure, up front, on the beginning of your book. I’ll go so far as to say that the relative strength of the beginning of your book will determine if it’s ever actually a book in the first place.
If you’re not excited about the beginning of your book, how can you expect that anyone else will be? If you find yourself slogging through “setting the scene” and “establishing the [whatever it is you’re trying to establish]” then you need to pause and listen to yourself. If it’s a chore to write, what makes you think it won’t be a chore to read? Stop info dumping, and start storytelling.
The fact is, whether or not you agree with it or believe it or understand it, very few people in that “gatekeeper” layer will read your entire manuscript from beginning to end if the first paragraph doesn’t suck them in. A weak first paragraph will result in a quick rejection. Agents and editors routinely get thousands of submissions every year and of course they can’t read every word of every one of them. In fact, they can only read every word of only a very tiny percentage of them. There is a certain finite quality to time, after all.
So yeah, the first paragraph, page, and chapter really are that important.
A strong first paragraph will get your first chapter read. If that doesn’t pay off you’ll get a slightly less quick rejection. If the first chapter is strong there’s a good chance that agent or editor will keep reading into the middle of your book, at least, and that’s a great sign. That means you’ve passed probably 90% or more of the other authors in the slush pile. Congratulations!
Once it’s published, readers will decide to buy your book or not for lots of different reasons, almost all of which are entirely out of your control. But the one thing you do have some control over is the quality of your own work. If that first paragraph really grabs, you can get that reader from glancing at an Amazon preview or skimming the first page at a bookstore to actually buying the book. Or at least maybe they’ll keep reading through the first chapter and then make that decision.
If this is making you nervous, feeling as though I’m putting tons of pressure on you to nail that opening paragraph, good. I’m putting tremendous pressure on you to nail that opening paragraph.
No one ever said this was going to be easy.
The fact is this is where the bulk of your work as an author will actually focus. You need to get that strong opening done fast, get ’em hooked, but then deliver a page-turner all the rest of the way through. If your first chapter is all awesome in media res action written in an immediate, spare, and evocative voice then you grind to an info dumping halt at the beginning of Chapter 2 and the next hundred pages read like an encyclopedia you’re in potentially more trouble than if you’d just started off bad.
At least if you suck right up front, everyone from potential agents to potential readers will wander off fast, not having felt they’ve wasted too much time, effort, or money. You can lose readers at any point in the process, and again mostly for reasons entirely unknown and unavoidable, but still. Learn all those lessons about tight POV, and Chekov’s Gun, and rising and falling action, and raising stakes.
Oh, and I almost forgot. These three acts are by no means meant to be equal thirds of our word count. The middle could easily be 80% of the actual book. It’s where almost everything happens.
The end of the story ultimately has to answer one question:
Was it worth it?
And this is a question you should expect to be asked by your own characters first. “Was it worth it? Did I grow, did I succeed or fail, can someone learn from my triumphs and tragedies, did everything hang together in a logical and plausible way?” If your characters feel cheated, you need to listen to them and go back and keep writing until they tell you they’re good.
That’s me being a little fuzzy, I’ll admit. But again, no one ever said it was going to be easy, and almost all of what you’re doing when you set out on a creative writing project is entirely subjective. What it feels like, seems like, etc. is always more important than how many words it is, how many chapters it has, or other concrete, objective things.
The next set of people, the gatekeepers, are going to ask that same question:
Was it worth it?
These are people, agents and editors, who are accustomed to reading first drafts, and so will be forgiving of typos and whatnot, but not terribly forgiving of flat, lifeless endings. If you’ve convinced one of these busy professionals to read past the first chapter, kept them in over the last 90,000 words or so in the middle, then drop on them a “to be continued in Book II: The Seriesing” or decide that endings are “unrealistic” and you have some kind of plotless literary non-ending in mind, or the dreaded deus ex machina arrives to pull everyone’s fat out of the fryer, or any other ways in which you can blow the ending of your book . . . well, now you have a busy professional who wants to murder you.
In some cases, they might love the rest of your book enough to get back to you with advice on how to fix the ending—and I beg you, listen to that advice—but most likely you’ll get the slower, maybe slightly bitchier rejection.
If your sucky ending makes it all the way to the bookstore, expect that readers will hate you even more. When they ask: Was it worth it? And their answer is “no,” expect to see that online. And other readers actually will listen to them.
Readers are smart—if they weren’t they wouldn’t be reading—so they’ll ignore online reviews that speak to personal preference, etc., but when word starts getting out, from multiple people at multiple venues, that the ending sucks in some way or another, your next round of potential readers will drop off in droves. That really seems to be a complaint that other consumers take very seriously.
But if you nail it . . .
If you write an attention-grabbing beginning, keep up the pace through the page-turner middle, and bring it all together into a surprising and satisfying ending, you’ll make it through your own writing process in a happier, more excited state. The gatekeepers will start fighting over it. And readers will shout from the rooftops about how awesome it is.
Reader recommendation seems to be one of the most effective ways to sell books: You listen to your friends, who know your tastes and whose taste you know. And though that means you’re lots less likely to read a book when they say, “Well, if you can make it through the first hundred pages it gets good,” (which is where I immediately pass, thanks anyway), or “It was really good right up till the Seinfeld ending,” if you nail all three parts and your readers ask their friends some variation of “Was it worth it?” and that’s answered with some form of, “Yes!” then you win.
Go for the win.