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 how to write the first page of a book.
The thinking is that readers thumbing through books in the bookstore and agents alike make snap decisions based on those initial words.
And while it's essential that the entire book is great, the reality is that the first page of your book sets the tone and expectation for the quality of writing for the rest of the book.
You need to make it good! Something that can uphold the excitement of your book idea and that would impress a publishing company.
4 Tips to Write the Perfect First Page
Below are some of the rules I've discovered for crafting the perfect first page of a book.
First, though, if you want to learn more about plot and how to structure your story, check out my new book, The Write Structure. It helps writers like you make their plot better and write bestselling, award winning books readers love. Click to get the book.
1. 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. in most cases, prologues suggest laziness or weakness in the writer—or confusion on the best place to start the beautiful book.
I used to have a prologue to my novel that I thought was good; however, at some point I realized the agents were right, it was really 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, and there are books that work better with a prologue than without one.
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?
Another question to ask yourself is: is the prologue really the best place to start the book, or is it trying to explain things instead of let the reader dive into the story?
In her book The Writer's Guide to Beginnings, literary agent and author Paula Munier suggest that writers turn to page fifty in their books and that's probably the best place to start the book. If you jump to page fifty in your book, is this a more exciting place to start instead of your prologue?
2. Create Tension
On the first page. A professional book doesn't make a reader wait a long time before getting to the tension. A character should be placed in a situation rattled with tension from the first page of a book.
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.
When writing my book, 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. That subject matter didn't even move me. I changed it.
3. 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. And the average reader makes up their mind in seconds.
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. It also sets up expectations for the book structure formula and story type—even if the reader doesn't know that they're acquiring those expectations.
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.
4. 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.
Off to a Strong Start
The perfect first page will draw your readers in from the very start and compel them to read on. This is your chance to hook your readers and get them excited for your book, so take the time to get it right. It's not easy to nail, but it's so worth it.
Need more book writing help? After you practice writing your first page in the exercise below, check out my new book The Write Structure which helps writers make their plot better and write books readers love. Low price for a limited time!
What do you think makes the first page of a book stand out? Let us know in the comments.
The first page of a novel really isn’t that long—probably no more than three hundred words.
For the next fifteen minutes, take a stab at writing page one of a novel using one or more of these rules. When you’re finished, share your work in the Pro Practice Workshop here (and if you’re not a member yet, you can join here).