You’ve probably read and enjoyed some of the most memorable first pages in fiction, from George Orwell to JK Rowling but many writers struggle with this part of their book, mainly because a first page has to do so much.
It has to capture the reader’s attention from the very first line, and is often the determining factor (after the blurb) in the decision to purchase.
The first page is also where literary agents and publishing professionals will make decisions on whether to represent and buy your book, making a judgement on your writing style within minutes.
If you’re struggling in this area, you’re not alone and in this article I’m sharing five elements you need to include in your first page and some writing techniques to execute those elements.
I'm also including a FREE first page checklist for you to download as a handy resource to help you entice your reader to keep turning the pages.
Time and place
Establishing the setting of your book early will help ground your reader and provide an anchor for your story. However, the first page is not the place to write long descriptions about the weather or scenic views - it needs to be more subtle than that. Here are a few ideas:
Use date and place as chapter titles
For example, London, 1985. This is a common technique and can be a quick and relatively easy way to establish time and place. Some writers may consider this approach cheating, but if it works for your story, genre, and reader, there’s no need to overcomplicate things.
Focus on the few but significant details
Pick out one or two elements of your setting and craft words around them rather than lengthy descriptions of the complete surroundings.
Consider how your character feels about the setting
We all have opinions about places. How does your character feel about where they are at that moment? How would they describe it? You could also take it one step further and use dialogue.
Focus on the senses
Another idea is to use the senses, especially the sense of smell which often gets overlooked in favour of the more obvious sight and touch.
The main character should be included as early as possible as this is who the reader will connect with. If you have multiple characters, go with the assumption that the first character you introduce is the one your readers will buy into. Here are a few ideas to introduce your character on the first page in a compelling way.
Go beyond the mundane
Start your story with something interesting that happens to your character. In my first novel, The Good Mother, I opened with the main character writing a letter to a murderer in prison. It’s thought-provoking (what do you write to a prisoner?) and unusual enough to spark interest.
Avoid realms of backstory
While I often advise aspiring authors to write their character’s backstory, not all of it will make it into the book and it certainly shouldn’t be on the first page.
Give your character a goal
It might be difficult to include your character’s goal on the first page, but you can hint at it. By doing this, you’re establishing a connection with the reader, leaving them with the question as to whether the character will achieve it.
Keep it simple
It sounds obvious but avoid introducing too many characters as it can cause confusion for the reader.
Readers have certain expectations when they buy a book. If they pick romance, they’ll most likely expect a happy ending. If they pick a thriller, they’ll expect a twist. Establishing the tone of your book on the first page is one way to meet, and hopefully exceed, those expectations. For example, if you’re writing comedy make sure there’s a few well-placed jokes or humorous anecdotes on the first page. Here are a few other ways to establish tone.
Determine your point of view
Writing in first person (I believe / I think etc) provides a very different feel compared to third person (Paul thinks / Paul believes etc). First person is a lot more intimate and is likely to develop a deeper connection with the reader. However, using third person gives you much more flexibility, allowing a broader perspective.
Short, staccato dialogue is a great way to indicate a sense of urgency, perfect for thrillers and crime novels. This is just one example of how dialogue can impact the tone of your book. How can you write dialogue (through word and grammatical choices) to reflect the tone?
Focus on emotion
Use the emotion of your character to establish tone. How are they feeling and how can you reflect their emotions through their actions?
Read within your genre
Whatever you’re writing, look to other novels within the same genre for ideas and new ways of establishing tone. Pay special attention to the first page and analyse the language to see what works for you as a reader.
Hint at what’s to come
Ultimately, a reader will only continue reading if they think there’s something exciting to follow. Experiment with the below techniques to see if any work for your novel.
Use a prologue
A prologue is at the beginning of a novel and separate from the main story. It’s role is to introduce important information related to the story but which can only be understood by the reader at a later stage.
This is a literary technique used to give an indication or hint of what is to come later in the story. An example is Little Red Riding Hood, when the mother is concerned for her daughter’s safety and that foreshadows the appearance of the big bad wolf. Symbolism is often used for foreshadowing. This might be a lone animal, like a black crow signalling danger, or storm clouds. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, witches are an omen of future bad things.
End with a cliff-hanger
Not just limited to the first page, a cliff-hanger is dramatic and exciting, leaving the reader in suspense as to what might happen next.
Tension and conflict
No book is complete without tension and by including it on the first page, it’s a powerful way to ensure a great start to your book. Check out some of these ideas:
Introduce the antagonist
The antagonist, whether that’s a villain or a concept, will help define your main character indicating what obstacles your character has to overcome. Again, you probably won’t be able to give a full overview of the antagonist but you can at least hint at a challenge for that sense of conflict.
Include the inciting incident
What is that all important event that changes the course of your protagonist’s life and kicks off the story? Many crime stories open up with a dead body and are a great example of how an inciting incident can be used on the first page.
Pack in the action
Don’t be afraid to go big on your first page and action is a great way to create momentum. Readers are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing what to read so an action-packed opening scene could make it memorable.
Don’t forget to download your FREE checklist to help you write a great first page and if you know of any writers who would find this information useful, then please feel free to share using the icons below.
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