I’m going to tell you a secret; page one is the most important page of your entire novel.
Yes, your mind is blown, I’ll repeat myself; page one is the most important page of your entire novel. This is true for several reasons, but I’m going to talk about the fact that if your reader is not drawn in on the first page it’s likely they will not buy/finish reading your book.
I have a friend who goes to the bookstore and picks a book off the shelf and if she is not sold by the time she gets to the end of page one she shuts the book and replaces it on the shelf. Harsh right? Here’s what’s harsher, your book will not even be published if the agent/editor is not sold by the time they reach the end of the first page. So how do you write an excellent first page? I made a list for you:
1. Establish the setting
2. Establish who your character is (DO NOT TELL US- SHOW US!)
3. Establish your character's goal/objective in the scene- what do they WANT and who is standing in their way? (DO NOT TELL US- SHOW US!)
4. Establish why this is important to them, or in other words, what the stakes are. (DO NOT FREAKING TELL US- SHOW US!)
I know, I know, you came up with this amazing action scene where your main character comes swooping in from the rafters and engages in an impressive sword fight all while the building is on fire! WOW!
**starts to snore**
While that is all well and good, unless you have established your character first, your reader does not give two woops about your protagonist's ability to sword fight one handed all while holding a sleeping baby in the other. Starting your reader off in the action is good advice, but what tends to be left out is the fact that you need to give the reader a sense of who your character is and make us CARE about them otherwise the scene falls flat.
I’m going to use A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas as an example of the above. Here is her first PAGE:
The forest had become a Labyrinth of snow and Ice.
I’d been monitoring the parameters of the thicket for an hour, and my vantage point in the cork of the tree branch had turned useless. The gusting wind blew thick flurries to sweep away my tracks, but buried along with them any signs of potential quarry.
Hunger had brought me farther from home than I usually risked, but winter was a hard time. The animals had pulled in, going deeper into the woods than I could follow, leaving me to pick off stragglers one by one, praying they’d last until spring.
I wiped my numb fingers over my eyes, brushing away the flakes clinging to my lashes. Here there were no telltale trees stripped of bark to mark the deer’s passing- they hadn’t yet moved on. They would remain until the bark ran out, then travel north past the wolves’ territory and perhaps into the faerie lands of Prythian- where no mortals would dare go, not unless they had a death wish.
In the above excerpt we are able to discern our location (the forest in winter) we also get a good sense of who our main character is (she’s a hunter and from her thoughts we can guess that she’s fairly experienced.)
Now the interesting part; her objective is not just killing something for sport but the stakes are set high by the fact that she’s starving and food is scarce.
Now we’re interested.
We’re further interested by the little tidbit that if the animals continue to move north they will cross into Prythian ‘where no mortals would dare go.’
You see how this author is setting up the stakes? If our MC does not catch something she will starve to death or have to face going into more perilous lands. She has already mentioned that she’s traveled farther north than she’s ever gone before which may be unwise, but this shows she’s desperate. This is what you need to do to get your readers invested right out the gate. Do not waste words with pointless scenes full of action that doesn’t draw us in to your character.
The most important thing you can do in the first page is get the reader to cheer for your protagonist, while at the same time, fearing for their well being. In ACOTAR we are immediately sympathetic to Feyre since we know she’s starving to death, we also fear for her safety and are intrigued by the fact that she’s been pushed to such lengths to survive. BOOM. Good writing. Here are a few ways to accomplish this:
Do not bog your reader down with too much information. We do not need to know the entire 500 year history of your world to understand what’s going on. Fight the impulse to tell us.
Do not over describe. We do not need a paragraph detailing every freckle on your MC’s face. We also do not need an entire page detailing every blade of grass or crooked picture in your setting. Get to the action. “The forest had become a labyrinth of snow and ice.” Boom. One sentence and our scene is set.
Do not tell us who your character is, show us. In the above excerpt we see Feyre in action as she’s hunting instead of being told she’s a hunter. Is your MC a master painter? A singer? A violinist? What is their main trait? Are they a master martial artist? Find a way to SHOW your reader who they are in that first page. Have them DOING whatever it is that defines them. We want to see them in the act.
Are you seeing a pattern here? In the first page, and I’ll go as far as to say the first chapter, it’s important to keep the story moving forward. Do not pause for a three paragraph monologue of your MC’s family history, there’s plenty of time for that later. The most important thing is to get your reader invested first and once the hook is in you can start developing the world and your characters back story. That is what the first 100 pages is for; story set up. I’ll explore this in my next series entry but for now, keep your first page focused on establishing your character, setting, and stakes.
Until next time, here’s an interesting tidbit to get you through:
We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images. – John Gardner