Your First Page

It doesn’t matter if what you’ve written is five pages long or five thousand pages, or if it’s fiction or non-fiction; the first page is your most important page. That first page must do a multitude of tasks. It introduces your topic or story, shows the reader your writing style, and, hopefully, makes the reader want to read on.

Most agents and editors I’ve listened to say they know by the end of the first page if they’re going to pass on a piece. They’ll usually give the writer a page or two more, but if the writer hasn’t caught their interest by then, the piece goes into the reject pile.

It used to be that editors (and agents) had the time to work with new writers. If the editor saw promise in the author’s voice or in the topic, the editor would help the writer polish a piece. However, times have changed. Nowadays what a writer sends to be published must be 95% ready to go to press. Editors don’t have the time to teach grammar and spelling or how to grab a reader’s interest and hold it.

Readers expectations have also changed. Our news comes in sound-bytes; movies and television shows start out with action scenes; Twitter and Facebook give us information in short bursts; electronic games and devices vie for our attention. Readers don’t have the time or patience to slog through pages and pages of backstory before the “real” story begins. They want the story to start right away and pull them from page to page until the end.

Writers are told, “You have to ‘hook’ the reader.” So how does a writer accomplish this?

You start by telling just enough to pique the reader’s curiosity.

The door flies open. Bright light floods into the dark room, framing the silhouette of a large man who stands there, unmoving.
“What?” Will demands, raising himself onto his elbows, squinting into the harsh light. “What’s going on?”
The man doesn’t answer.
“What do you want?”
The man remains in the doorway, saying nothing, a mute looming hulk. He surveys the hotel room, the disheveled bed, discarded clothing, burned-down candles, wine bottle and glasses.
“¿Qué quieres?” Will tries.
——————-The Travelers by Chris Pavone

By the end of the first page, the readers still doesn’t know what’s going on, but we know the point-of-view character’s name (Will), that he’s in a hotel room, probably in a Spanish speaking country, and that he’s afraid. The reader will now turn the page to find out why Will is afraid and who this large man is. It’s the unanswered questions that make readers want to keep reading.

Here’s the first paragraph of The Art Forger: A Novel by B.A. Shapiro

I step back and scrutinize the paintings. There are eleven, although I have hundreds, maybe thousands. My plan is to show him only pieces from my window series. Or not. I pull my cell from my pocket, check the time. I can still change my mind. I remove Towers, a highly realistic painting of reflections off the glass Hancock building, and replace it with Sidewalk, an abstraction of Commonwealth Avenue though a parlor-level bay window. Then I switch them back.

By the end of the first page, we know she’s an artist, that the owner of a renowned art gallery is on his way to her studio, and she’s nervous. We are also told she’s a pariah in the art world, dubbed “the Great Pretender.” But we’re not told why. Not yet. Not until nearly halfway through the book…but we want to know why. And that’s the hook.

New writers have a tendency to tell too much. Less is better. Tell only as much as is necessary, when necessary. Trust the reader to fill in some gaps. Make them wait for an answer.

Read over your first page. Are you starting with something happening? Or are you telling the reader how your protagonist got where she or he is now? Are you describing your main character in detail or giving just enough so the reader can form some sort of image? (Character descriptions can be spread out over several chapters.) If you’re telling the character’s backstory, how can you rewrite it so you start with where the character is now yet give us a few hints about his or her past?

Words are a writers tools. Make them work for you.

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20 Responses to Your First Page

  1. Excellent advice as always, Maris. Again you’ve made me think.

  2. Becky Lower says:

    Nice post, Maris. I’m going to share this with my chapter, since it’s the type of advice we all need to be reminded of.

  3. susan Payne says:

    This is for my formative mind only – I read the first as 2 POVs – why would a man take his eyes off the hulk to survey his own room, to view what he knew was there. In second piece, I noticed sentence fragments which I get hit for all the time. You may have reinforced my belief that following the “rules” makes for a boring story. As always though I learned something and exercised my mind.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Susan, I agree the pov in that one sentence in the first example could be considered as that of the “Hulk;” however, I see it as Will listing what the other man is seeing as he looks around. As for the sentence fragment, those are quite common in commercial fiction. What sometimes becomes a problem is too many fragments close together. The only rule that seems to hold is if the writing is clear to the reader.

  4. Melissa Keir says:

    Very good advice. Hooking the reader is something I focus on with my students. There are so many wonderful ways to begin. Patricia Polacco is an amazing children’s author who has great openings.

  5. Good advice, and succinctly and clearly put. I also reread my first few pages to see if I’m dawdling my way into the story, and what can I do to get the reader right into the story. Good piece.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Thanks, Susan. While writing for the Loveswept line, I was told by my editor that the books were going to be shorter and could I cut about 10 pages? That’s when I learned how unimportant some of my sentences were. Words and sentences were cut and the meaning didn’t change. If anything, the cuts made my writing better.

  6. Great advice, Maris. You’ve definitely given me more to think about!

  7. The first page is always the hardest part for me to write–so much so that I generally rewrite it any number of time and especially again after the novel is completed.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, just recently I heard a multi-published author say he never reads his books once they’re published. I imagine it’s for the same reason. He probably thinks of a better way to write that first page (or other pages in the book).

  8. Great post always,Maris. You’ve reminded me how important that first page is to a book. Information dump was my very first mistake when I started writing seriously. Helpful editing taught me a lot. Reminders are always needed.

  9. Julie Roibnson says:

    Good points about reader expectations being different now.