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.
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
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.