Friday, September 16, 2011

What I Aspire To: First pages I just LOVE. The Gunslinger by Stephen King

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

OH, to write a more perfect first line.... Could it be possible? Admittedly, I am a raging S. King fan girl of the highest order... but DAMN. 

With a single sentence King has told us everything we need to know. We may not know who the players are on the deepest levels-- but We know enough. 

The man in black is fleeing. He is not a man who is well known. He is a mystery, but he is not a hero. Heroes don't flee.

The gunslinger is defined by what he does. And he is willing to follow a man into the desert to catch him.

The question of what the character wants is wrapped up nicely in this sentence. The gunslinger wants to catch the man in black. We don't know why.  King doesn't bother us with those boring details in these first pages. No, instead he occupies us with the methodical and all consuming hunt. The taciturn and detached manner of our MC (Who is only referred to as "the gunslinger" until you are well past the 100 page mark) tells us more than any long-winded recitation of history could. His deeply ingrained practicality and self awareness is almost abrasive. If he is our hero, how awful must the man in black be?

But despite the cold, calculating manner of the gunslinger there are glimpses of a reluctant humanity. 

"His hat was gone. So was the horn he once carried; gone for years, that horn, spilled form the hand of a dying friend, and he missed them both."

There's an argument to be made for the "both" referred to is the hat and the horn. But that is the genius here. By referring to his dead friend he tips his cards just a bit, allowing the reader a glimpse at the depth of feeling that is buried inside and the tragedy that makes him so doggedly determined.... all without giving us any detailed back story.

So what do I take away from this? Write a character that is complex and interesting because of what they are doing right now. Have them want something from line one and -- more importantly-- have them going after it. 

** I'd like to do a series of What I Aspire To: First Pages I Love and I invite you to help. If you have something to say about the craft and effectiveness of the first 5 pages of your favorite novel(s) let me know. I'd love to get other writer and reader POV's on this topic. Comment below!**


Sirra said...

I'm an editor, so I can't really say that my comment comes from a reader's point of view. Though I do try to put myself in a reader's shoes when I exam the first pages of any novel. Every writer should and probably does know the important of the first few pages because they're the decider of all.

When readers pick up a book, they often read the blurb in the back and get to skimming the first few pages. If those pages don't come and smack them in the face? They'll put it down and move on to the next 3 trillion books that are on the shelves. Okay. I know you all know this, but I really wanted to reiterated this. I had to.

Besides, there are too many good first few pages and too many bad few pages to pick just one:P

Lela Gwenn said...

I agree that there are many, many great first pages out there... but this book has been a favorite of mine since I was 13 and still holds my imagination. That kind of longevity is hard to come by.

Imran Siddiq @flickimp said...

I come in two bags of thought.

Number One...
Where I find a book that I have no knowledge of, my first point of interest will be the blurb. Only if the blurb captures me will I go on to read the first page. I am forgiving at this point and will read the entire chapter, or the first 10 pages. From that point my decision is made.

Completely wrong genre, but The Stonecutter for me had an intriguing blurb, and the first chapter nailed it.

Other examples when i was 8 years old = Matilda, The Hobbit and the Shannara series.

Number Two.
Where a book is recommended to me, I will overlook the blurb and Chapter One, if they do not stand out for me. And I will go on for the next 3 chapters. That's me being ultra forgiving now... and usually it is rewarding.

Take Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship (for a 9 year old) was tedious, but I stuck at it..and I was damn proud I got through it.

Lela Gwenn said...

As a reader I absolutely get that. I have slogged though chapters of books before. But as writers I think making it as easy and pleasurable (which is not to say not challenging) for a person to immerse themselves is important. IMHO

Dee Garretson said...

Great post! The more I write, the more I become one of those readers who needs to be engaged in the first few pages. And I agree that finding books which resonate with you are great for inspiration. I have a few go-to books I reread to keep me going when I'm revising. They aren't even in the genre I write, and I'm not trying to imitate the style; they just help me understand everything I need to pull together.

Lela Gwenn said...


I'd love to have you write a post about one of those books and what you take from it.

Thanks for reading & commenting!

TL Jeffcoat said...

I never look at the first few pages, partly because once I've decided to read a book, I overlook a slow or bad start to just grind it out. I've been reading more lately than usual, since I started writing again and I've noticed I've become less tolerant of a bad start to a book. I still slosh through it, but sometimes it's painful. Once I'm no longer reading the book for enjoyment, I begin analyzing it and picking it apart. I learn a lot of what not to do this way, and it never hurts. To me, the beginning must be exciting, I write what I would want to read. Otherwise, how will I be able to stand it when it's time to edit. I hate editing enough as it is.

So what all that means, I judge a book by it's cover and blurb. If it doesn't pull me in, I put it back, never even open it.

That said, I've rewritten the beginning of my WIP six times from scratch. Six completely different opening scenes. I do this because it's what the reader wants. It's what I want when I do finally crack open the book to read. I would rather enjoy it than turn it into homework.

Lela Gwenn said...


I feel the same way, trying to hone my first pages to as sharp a point as possible. But that is why I am doing this-- to get clear on what makes those pages pop. I really hope I can get some other perspectives.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

I think this is why, as a writer, I am constantly working on those first few pages, particularly that first paragraph. As readers, we know that is what captures our audience. I would love to play, I'm going to pull out my all time favorite book, and see what it is that hooked me. Excellent post!

Lela Gwenn said...

Awesome Kelly! I can't wait to see your point of view! :D