The phrase ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’ has never been more true than it is in the world of publishing. From agents to editors to readers, the first page, the first paragraph, even the first line, serve as a kind of litmus test- Do I want to keep reading? Do I want to commit to another page, another chapter, another act? Do I want to shell out a portion of my limited book budget to splurge on this book among the thousands of other options?
As writers, we know that first page is important. We workshop it, rewrite it, revise it, polish it and shine it until it gleams. But a first page is only one page in as many as 300 or more. While I understand the need for a strong opening, I sometimes wonder if it’s fair to make that one little page carry so much of the load.
I think at a minimum, a first page needs to ground the reader, to hint at the story experience to come, to give a flavor for the tone of the book, so the reader can decide whether to commit to the rest of the story. Beyond that, I try not to worry too much about the first page as a standalone read, because a first page has to serve the story too. It’s not just a lure. So with this philosophy in mind, I give you some things to think about as you craft your first page:
1 Start in the right place: where you start is often the critical question for first pages. A first page that can lack interest or tension if you start a scene (or the entire story) too soon. Conversely, it can be unsettling (and hard to follow) if you start too far into the middle of the action. The first page has to walk the line of providing enough background to orient us to the character and scene without reading like boring info-dump. It’s a tall order, but this page is the introduction to your world, and you want to get it right.
Establish the narrator’s voice: Who is telling the story? If we’re going to follow this person for 300+ pages, we want to know if this person is worth following. The narrator’s voice sets the tone for the entire story. Make sure it’s present in that first page. Does you narrator have a unique way of speaking or just a unique way of looking at the world? We need to see it on page one.
Set the tone for the rest of the story: If your book is scary, the first page should deliver with, if not an ominous tone, at least some hint of what’s to come. If your book is fun, the tone of the first page should reflect that. If setting is important to your story, we should get grounded in the setting right off the bat. If your story is character driven, we should see lots of voice and interiority. If your story is fast-paced and action packed- the first page should reflect that. Your first page sets the tone for the reader. They should have at least a vague idea of what they’re going to get if they turn the page.
Establish some micro tension: first pages should include some sort of conflict, some tension that comes from the character, the situation, or even just a question that the reader needs answered. Even introductions or long descriptions that could otherwise read as tedious info-dump can be made tantalizing when conflict is present.
Secondary items: I think if you can accomplish all of the above with your first page you are going to be in good shape, but here are some secondary things to keep in mind:
a. Introduce setting: Where are we? When are we? Is this world familiar to us? Unfamiliar? In what ways? The reader needs to be grounded in place and time. Help them picture the scene with a few key details, tantalize them with hints that the world is different than their own, or show how even a familiar world can look different through your character’s eyes.
b. Introduce characters: Who is this story about? Who is telling it? Why should we be interested? Voice can help with this, but the reader needs to get a picture of the main characters early in the story. Ground the reader with one or two key details about the main character early on.
c. Introduce situations: What is happening? What are the stakes for the characters in the scene? We need to know why what’s happening is important to the characters, and what they have to lose. This will help create tension in your scene, and also help the reader empathize with the characters.
d. Raise questions: Nothing will get a reader turn the page better than raising a question in their mind that they want answered. This is where avoiding giving too much background can help you. Hint at something that will be fleshed out later, raise questions that will be answered later in the chapter, or better yet, later in the story.