Posted on November 15, 2012
When we write, we intend to create a whole piece that is worthy of reading. However, sometimes we forget that one of the most important pieces of the whole is the very first page. It includes the hook to bring in the reader, and hopefully compels him or her to turn to the next page.
Whether you are intending to pursue the traditional publishing route or self-publishing, that first page can be the difference in getting a reader and maintaining one. As I attended the James River Writers Conference and a First-Page Critique session, I learned a few pointers to making that first page memorable.
Note: The panel consisted of two agents, an editor, and an author moderating it. While the main focus was how the pages would be evaluated within the traditional publishing world, the lessons can still be applied to self-published writers in consideration of their immediate readers.
1. Details – One of the biggest areas that got mentioned on the examples read was about how the author presented details. We all want the reader to know the worlds we’re presenting as well as we, the writers, do. We have to be careful how we give details on that very first page. Readers should not be drowned in description or have irrelevant information. In other words, try to avoid an info-dumping situation. A really good piece of advice is to start at the macro level, or the larger picture. Allow yourself to give the micro level details throughout the book.
2. Action – A really good way to grab attention is to start with some form of action. Whether you start in medias res, in the middle of the story, or if action starts the story, giving the reader some tension from the hook can be a good thing. The biggest pitfall to adding tension within the first paragraph is immediately losing it in the subsequent first-page paragraphs. If you start with someone who scrambles to hold on to the ledge in the opener, keep the reader there with the character – try not to break away into description of the setting or something else that breaks that tension.
3. Dialogue – Related to action, sometimes dialogue can bring the reader in actively into a scene. One note I would make from the panel specifically was that it was a matter of taste amongst the panel members of who liked dialogue as the first lines and who didn’t. That would be something for you to decide if it’s necessary to put at your start. Having dialogue there within a couple of sentences didn’t receive the same reaction as having the very first line as dialogue. However, I think the general consensus was that it could be confusing to start with a character’s words if the reader didn’t know anything at all beforehand.
4. Characters – Be wary of how many of your cast of characters get mentioned on the first page. It could be a warning sign to your readers if you introduce a main character and the back up cast that includes five or more characters that they will have to really work hard to keep up with who is who. There are genres that may support multiple casts of characters (like epic fantasy writer George R.R. Martin), but in general, it may be a red flag to a reader and definitely to a literary agent if those multiple cast members all show up on the first page.
5. Breaking Away – We’re all familiar with the use of flashback, and by no means is it a bad device to use in writing. But introducing your world in one to two paragraphs only to break into another time, another place, or another voice can be distracting. The reader wants to buy into the book. Starting with one character or place and then immediately taking the readers out of what hooked them on the very first page may not work. The worst thing you want a literary agent, publisher, and/or reader to think is that you started with something really interesting but then you broke away from what held their interest in the first place.
6. Know your genre – The biggest lesson is to know how works within your genre are created. If you’re writing mystery, you don’t want to start off with a lot of world-building details. If you’re writing fantasy, you need to clue the reader into what your world is like (not give every detail, but enough to let the readers know they’re in a different world). Be wary of clichés. If you’re writing a mystery, you don’t have to begin in a detective’s office, smoke billowing around the room, a bottle of booze on the desk, and a leggy dame walking in with a problem. However, you should know what will clue the reader to which genre your work belongs.
So how can you improve your first page? The best way to learn is to go read them! Pick your favorite books and see how they hooked you. Pick books within your genre and see how the authors introduced their work to the reader. I would also go check out the books that have been recently published as writing continually evolves. What hooked during Jane Austen’s time won’t necessarily hook now (unless you’re including zombies with your Pride and Prejudice).