Chapter Three: The First Few Pages, Continued

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I will continue this post with the assumption that you've read the first two posts. Again, everything I have to say about writing is based on my experience. My only goal is to help beginners avoid the pitfalls that slowed me down in my quest to get published.

Let's return to how to start a book, knowing that the first few pages are critical. In the previous post I dwelt on Slumber Party for the simple reason that it represents one of the simplest ways to start a book. Read and then reread the first two pages of that novel and you'll see that nothing I wrote was spectacular. It was all pretty straightforward.

Yet there was a method to my madness. I emphasized it in my last post. The first few pages of a book must quickly give a reader information. Information about the world you are creating. Information about who your characters are. Information about what your characters are doing. On the surface Slumber Party looks as if a high school student could have written it. But look a little deeper and you'll see that within two pages it drags you into the story.

However, there are other ways to hook a reader other than using the four fundamentals of writing: Dialogue; Internal Dialogue; Description of the action; Description of the setting. You can hook a reader with an idea -- an interesting idea.

My first two novels -- Slumber Party and Weekend -- were both cast from the same mold. They told of the adventures of a group of teenagers who had gone away for the weekend. The books depended upon the teenagers being physically isolated for the stories to work. In Slumber Party my characters got snowed in at a cabin deep in the woods. In Weekend my characters were staying at a mansion located on the beach, way down south, deep in the Baja Peninsula.

But when I started my third novel, Chain Letter, I realized I had to do something different. I couldn't keep writing the same novel over and over again, although many authors make an excellent living doing exactly that. I wanted to branch out. In Chain Letter I wanted to hook my readers from the first line. Here's how the book starts....

Alison Parker saw the letter first. Normally, she wouldn't have checked on her friend's mail, but the mailbox was slightly ajar and she couldn't help noticing the off-purple envelope addressed to Fran Darey. It was a peculiar letter, taller than it was long, with no return address. Whatever it was, whoever had sent it had lousy taste in color. The off-purple envelope reminded her of spoiled meat.

The title of the book is Chain Letter. The reader knows that already. Now, when he or she begins to read the book he or she immediately sees that, "Oh, here's the chain letter. I wonder what it says." Hitchcock, the famed director, often used this trick to start his movies. He'd show a bomb sitting beneath a table, tied to a ticking clock, then he'd switch to the people gathered around the table and allow us to listen to them talk for a few minutes so we'd have a chance to get to know them. I did the same thing in Chain Letter. I introduced the letter in the first paragraph, then I let my three characters chat for a few pages. Then, finally, one of them opened the letter...


My Dear Friend,

You do not know me, but I know you. Since you first breathed in this world, I have watched you. The hopes you have wished, the worries you have feared, the sins you have committed -- I know them all. I am The Observer, The Recorder. I am also The Punisher. The time for your punishment has arrived. Listen closely, the hourglass runs low.

At the bottom of this communication is a list of names. Your name is at the top. What is required of you -- at present -- is a small token of obedience. After you have performed this small service, you will remove your name from Column One and place it at the bottom of Column Two. Then you will make a copy of this communication and mail it to the individual at the top of Column One. The specifics of the small service you are to perform will be listed in the classified ads of the TIMES under personals. The individual following you on the list must receive their letter within five days from today.

Feel free to discuss this communication with the others on this list. Like me, they are your friends and are privy to your sins. Do not discuss this communication with anyone outside this group. If you do, that one very sinful night will be revealed to all.

If you do not perform the small service listed in the paper or if you break the chain of this communication, you will be hurt.

Sincerely, Your Caretaker


At the bottom of the letter, I drew up three columns and put a list of seven names. Three of the names belonged to the girls who were reading the letter, the other four were friends at school that the girls knew.

But that's neither here nor there. What matters is that the book starts with a bang! Slumber Party and Weekend sold well. Chain Letter quickly sold over a million copies. Why? Because it immediately sucked the reader in with an intriguing idea. Nowadays, of course, the chain letter would have arrived via an email on someone's computer or iPad.

But the form doesn't matter. The chain letter itself doesn't matter. What does matter is that the mystery of the novel is presented right at the start. The reader is only told the bare minimum about the setting and the characters. The thrust of the first few pages is to suck the reader in with a provocative idea. Agatha Christie, the famed British mystery writer, used to use this technique frequently, and she sold more books than I can count.

When I was in high school I read a book called The Raft. It was a true story from World War II. It started with three pilots floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a raft. At first I had no idea how they got there. I didn't know who the men were. All I knew was that they were dying of hunger and thirst on that damn raft, and that was enough to keep me reading.

That's a hook. That's a powerful way to start a book.

Think back to all the books you've read in your life. You'll realize that many started with a hook. That right from the first page the author hit you with a mystery -- a mystery that you just had to discover the answer to. The right hook presented on the first page can literally FORCE someone to finish a book. And yes, it can also force an editor to buy your book.

We're not yet done yet talking about how to start a book

Check back tomorrow...

Yours, Christopher Pike

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