I've spent a fair bit of time over the years editing, proof reading and critiquing the work of others and I cannot tell you how many times I've had a writer say something along these lines: "My story really gets rolling on the third page," or "I know the first chapter is kind of slow, but it really picks up steam in chapter two."
My question is always the same – why in the world don't you start where the action begins, at the point where the story really gets rolling? Dispense with the "slow" part, hit the ground running and never let up.
I say this for two reasons.
First, from a simple marketing standpoint. Yes, as writers we're artists, we're creators, but if we're going to be successful, if we're going to be viable on some level, we have to market our work, too. Back in the day when H.P. Lovecraft was writing, or even further back during Poe's day or when Dickens was penning his work, a writer could take his time ambling into the story.
Today? If you can't grab your reader on the first page, maybe even in the first paragraph, you're history. There are far too many alternatives for a reader to expect one to wade through pages of slow set-up.
Second, aside from marketing concerns, it's just bad writing. As an artist, a writer, your aim is to tell a story.
Yes, you want to write beautifully, you want folks to fall in love with your literary talent, but in our hearts we’re story tellers and the written word is our tool. Learn to use that tool by making beautiful, memorable prose – Douglas Clegg is one of the best at this (see The Hour Before Dark here or Nightmare House here for two fantastic examples)– without getting in the way of the story.
But what about back story? How will readers understand what's going on, who the characters are, if I jump right into the action?
Ever read Firestarter by Stephen King? (Check out a sample here)
That story starts right in the middle of action, yet King leaves hints and tips along the way at first, and later explores backstory.
What about Salem's Lot? (a sample can be viewed here). There isn't a lot, physically, going on in the beginning, but those first pages put you squarely in the middle of the story, of the action, planting questions and mysteries that keep you reading.
The same principle holds true in all writing, not just in horror. Absolute Power, the novel that launched the career of David Baldacci, starts right in the middle of a man about to break into a home and in so doing unwittingly uncovering a murder cover-up that goes all the way to the White House. The prose itself isn’t necessarily fast-pace, but Baldacci deposits you right in the middle of an ongoing story, rather than meandering along with backstory and introductions, (check out a sample here)
Want an example from the small or indie press? Check out the novel Lethal Obsession by an up-and-coming writer name Shandra Miller. This story will turn your preconceptions of what an erotica novel is upside down, and it starts right in the middle of the action – a woman thinking she's about to be killed. (A sample can be viewed here)
Check out one of the offerings by Cutting Block Press – Horror Library Vol. 3 (full disclosure, one of my pieces is in this Stoker-nominated anthology). Nearly every story there effectively starts right in the middle of the action (two fabulous examples are Them by Sunil Sadanand and The Station by Bentley Little) You can sample Horror Library Vol. 3 here)
My intent here wasn't to just hit you over the head repeatedly with writing samples, but what's the old adage – show, don’t tell? That's what I've tried to do here, show how some writers effectively draw you right in the story from the first page – even the first paragraph – and never let them go.
The best advice I can end with is to tell you to read those sample novels and collections I mentioned, see how those writers start in the middle of the action, then try to apply that to your own work.