The first few pages of your book, or the first few paragraphs of a short story, have a heavy load to bear. These are the pages that make or break your chances with publishers or competition judges and, most importantly, readers. It’s best not to think about it too much when you’re doing a first draft. Just start writing and then, later, once you’ve written all the way to the end, you can figure out the best place to start and whether it’s working well.
Most importantly your first pages must:
1.HOOK THE READER! Something in those first pages must intrigue the reader and compel them to continue turning the page. But how? SET UP A QUESTION. You can engage a reader with your beautiful prose but really, most of us just want to get our teeth into a riveting story that draws us in. By asking questions in that first page or so, you compel the reader to continue in search of an answer. This is your hook. The question you ask should relate to your story as a whole, not just “Which dress will Sophie wear to the dance?” but “Will Sophie ever escape her dreary small town?”
Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, sets up the question that drives the novel in the opening line. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” And there you have it – who will this rich man choose to marry of the five sisters?
In my novel set in Cambodia, “Child of Fortune”, I set up my question in the first page:
“I need to let you know what really happened, who I really am. Who you are. I’m afraid to tell you, because when I’m done you won’t be the same anymore.”
What happened in Cambodia that changed this woman? And how will it change us too?
What is the central question of your story? Find a way to introduce it early.
2. GROUND THE READER. When we begin a new book, we enter a new world. This world may be as familiar as a suburban street, or it may be another planet 400 years ago. Make sure you include some setting details in that first page, so we know where and when we are in time and place. This is especially important for Sci-fi and Speculative fiction. Make sure the reader isn’t frantically looking for clues to figure out what’s going on. Just tell us!
3. ESTABLISH YOUR MAIN CHARACTER. Just as readers need to know where we are in the story world, we also need to know who we’re with and whether we like them. If your story is about Jane, start with Jane in action, doing or saying something that lets us know who she is and what is driving her. If you can manage it, also endear her to us. Show her in a moment of vulnerability or tenderness. Or show her being totally amazing and someone we’d like to be, or at least know. When we read, we commit to being with these characters for the length of the story, so even if they’re not exactly honourable, make them fun to be around. See Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. He’s a creepy paedophile but he still manages to be charming.
4. ESTABLISH GENRE. If you start your story with a horrifying scene of slaughter, the reader will expect more horror and violence throughout the story. If you start with a love scene or someone yearning for love, they’ll expect a romance. In film the opening image carries all the weight with establishing just what kind of movie we’re going to see. Make sure your beginning sets up the right expectations from your reader.
5. ESTABLISH TONE. You may have done everything else well, hooked your reader with a question that will keep them turning pages, set up a story world for them to enter and a protagonist they’re keen to follow and set up that it’s a romance BUT what kind of romance is it? This is the tone.
Is it a light-hearted teenage romcom, or a romantic tragedy like Romeo and Juliet? Is it a quick, easy bodice-ripping read or a more philosophical exploration of a love affair? Your first pages set up expectations of what kind of a book it is. Readers tend to throw books across the room if they are lead astray in those initial pages. For example: Stephen King’s Carrie starts with a scene of blood and humiliation – spoiler alert – it ends the same way. But what if he’d started it with Carrie hanging out with all the girls at the coffee shop, giggling and eyeing off the football star? We’d expect a very different story then – a sweet teen romance, not the gory horror of Carrie’s revenge.
It’s all about grounding the reader, compelling them forward into the story and setting up their expectations of what the story will give them. Don’t think about it too hard or you’ll twist your brains into a horrible knot. Just check that your opening is doing these things. If you can’t tell, show someone else.
I’m offering a special deal for readers, send me your first 10 pages and a one page synopsis, and I’ll give you detailed feedback on what’s working and what may help you hit those marks. All for only $50 AUD. Drop me a line if you’re keen. I’d love to help you make your story the very best it can be.
Lots of love,