I’ve changed the first page of my novel a lot. I can’t even tell you how many times. It happened because as I was writing, I followed a lot of writing blogs, attended a lot of author talks, and browsed a lot of guides that had a lot to say about the first page. I guess the thinking is that readers thumbing through books in the bookstore and agents alike make snap decisions based on those initial words—so you better make it good!
Below are some of the rules I’ve discovered for crafting the perfect first page.
Skip the Prologue
Your first page should probably actually begin your story rather than consist of a prologue.
I admit a prologue is tempting. It allows us to start the book with our favorite part of the story or to tell the reader our character’s back story rather than bother with interweaving it into the text.
Unfortunately, almost everything I’ve read says agents hate prologues. Apparently they suggest some sort of laziness or weakness in the writer. I used to have a prologue to my novel and I thought was good; however, at some point I realized the agents were right, it was really just lazy. I was trying to tell the reader my character’s motivation instead of letting her figure it out herself. I deleted it.
That all said, I do enjoy reading prologues, so my advice is this: if you are a new author considering the use of a prologue, seriously think about why you chose to include it. Does it add to the story or is it just enabling you to do less work?
On the first page.
Writer Unboxed has this thing called “Flog a Pro” where they invite people to read first pages of books written by famous authors and then comment on whether they were moved to continue. Many times people say they were not. Reasons include too much detail about the setting or not interested in the characters, but usually the reason was simple—no tension.
In my opinion, this exercise isn’t completely fair because established authors don’t need to hook you on the first page—their fans already know what they are getting. However, new authors like me don’t have that luxury. So of course I took another look at my own first page. The only question I left the reader asking was whether two sisters would take a walk in the cold or go back inside. Sigh. I changed it.
Ask yourself—have you created enough tension on page one to inspire a browsing reader to invest in your novel?
Reveal the Core of Your Character (and Your Book)
In terms of revealing the core of your character, this applies to the first page as well as every time you introduce someone new. When the reader meets a character for the first time, it must be in a context that somehow reflects a vital aspect of his or her identity.
Is he overly ambitious? Then we probably meet him at work or ditching someone for work. Is she head of household or a protector? They we probably see her in the midst of providing. Is he a rebel? Then the first thing we see him doing is probably some crazy stunt he pulled.
Why? Because you never have a second chance to make a first impression, obvi.
Along those lines, the first page should also on some level raise, point to, or set up the overall question your novel is answering. This is partly because (hopefully) the last page will speak to the answer to that question.
These rules were by far the hardest, but I appreciated them the most because they gave me some direction on how to start. I ended up writing an entire new scene completely, but it felt more deliberate and purposeful than what I had before. Instead of just getting words on the page, I felt like I was beginning a story.
Ground Your Reader
This is a tip often given, but it’s worth sharing again. The reader should have a solid idea about the setting right away. Where are the characters? What’s the time period? Which season are we in? Your audience should never struggle with these basic questions, which means you’ll have to provide the answers pretty quickly—like on page one.
Do you believe that so much has to be achieved on the first page?
The first page of a novel really isn’t that long—probably no more than 300 words. Take a stab at writing page one of a novel using one or more of these rules. Share below!