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The Importance of the First Page

February 4, 2010

There are plenty of books I’ve been assigned in school that I never would’ve read if I wasn’t required to. And that’s not because I don’t enjoy the books—sometimes I end up loving them—but when I pick up a  book in my free time, I don’t read past the first page if I don’t have to, sometimes not even the first paragraph. If the book doesn’t grab me right there and then, there’s no point. I’m not reading it.

But writing that first page…it’s not as easy as it sounds. You need to introduce the reader to your world, your style, and while there are plenty of fancy writing devices at your disposal (of course you could kill off your main character within the first few pages, of course you could make your character talk in an entirely authentic slang) you don’t want to alienate or lose your reader. Which means you want to write something that will grab them without confusing or aggravating them. And sometimes, that’s hard.

Pub Rants has been doing a really great feature where Agent Kristen posts the opening pages of partials she’s received for books that ultimately got published. Reading them, you can see why they made the cut. The most recent one I read (the link above) was especially good, it was a YA novel that I practically ran to the nearest bookstore, and I’m one of those snobby people who doesn’t frequently read YA (though admittedly, I’m also one of those terrible people who read Twlight & Co. and loved it). Now there’s been a lot of debate over the prologue lately (among other things), such as whether they’re necessary and whether they work (Pub Rants thinks generally they don’t), and that book, my friends, is a great example of when it works. So check it out. Anyhow, for your amusement, I prepared a list of the five things you need to do for a great first page (because I read so much and I’m just such an expert):

The Five Things You Need To Do For A Great First Page

  1. Set the Scene: This is the first thing your potential reader will ever lay his eyes on. So keep him asking for more. The first page is intimidating for the reader: he doesn’t know what’s going on yet, he doesn’t even know the characters yet, he certainly hasn’t spent 6months-3years working and sobbing over this brilliant work. So cut the reader a break. Now’s not the time for your schizophrenic lead to have an incomprehensible fit. Give me a little context.
  2. Know the Voice: Whether you’re writing in first, second, or third person, there’s going to be a particular voice and tone for your book. This tone is the heartbeat of your novel; it’s what allows the words to flow thoughtlessly through the reader’s mind in the pure joy and abandon of reading. Let that voice welcome the reader in. A surly, antagonistic voice is just as likely to intrigue and thus welcome to reader as a sweet, happy-go-lucky prose can annoy, so don’t compromise your character’s unique outlook because you think the reader won’t think they’re a wonderful person. And if you’re writing in third person with a straight narrative? Either way, there is always the hint of an attitude, a perspective, something that convinces and encourages the reader to forge onwards. Whatever it is, make sure it’s consistent, sustainable, and authentic. It’s okay to write about things you don’t know, but don’t presume to be able to write about someone from China unless you lived there extensively, and don’t figure that since you were a kid once, obviously nothing’s changed and you can just toss around a few words from Urban Dictionary. That won’t cut it, mister.
  3. Know Your Audience: This is mostly a dig at prologues, where this happens frequently. Sometimes they work, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to draw the reader in with long, glorious, sophisticated prose that has nothing to do with the story. If the rest of the book isn’t anything like that first page, then you aren’t attracting the right audience.
  4. Write Well: When it gets down to it, good writing takes the cake. And that takes practice. A lot of practice. Most authors had to get a few books under their belts before they got published, so don’t enter into the arms race willy nilly—patience, soldier.
  5. Write ‘Your’ Writing: Good writing isn’t everything either. You can have all the proficiency you want and never do better than emulate. There’s also no ‘right’ way to write; if you read all the great works of literary cannon, you’d be hard pressed to find two with a similar structure or a similar approach to the first page. So make the book your own. That doesn’t mean doing anything radical or particularly ‘new,’ it just means that after a certain point, rereading Nabokov isn’t going to get you anywhere. You can’t copy on anyone’s success; there’s no formula for publishing a novel. So just like you need to define your character’s voice, you need to define your own.

So go out there and write a slamming first page! Unless of course, you have any suggestions? Words of wisdom?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2010 10:41 pm

    The first page is crucial, and if you make a mistake editors/agents will be quite happy to weed you out from the mix. However, I think too much focus is on the first page. Namely, no matter how good the first page, or the first five pages, or the first twenty pages is, the entire book is what needs to win the heart of the reader.

    Also, throw all the rules out and write. My opinion, again, but I think too much focus is paid on rules…of course the first page needs to grab, and you will know it when that happens.

    (Vive na america do sul dos anos, a maioria do tempo no brasil, bem cerca da frontier da Argentina. E você? Onde aprendeu Português?)

    Um abraço do


    • February 7, 2010 10:36 am

      I agree that rules are silly, especially since I hardly follow them myself (my latest work starts with dialogue, which tends to infuriate many). Put I think there are certain things to avoid, like introducing way to many characters, etc, and I did try to say in #5 that at the end of the day it’s your writing that’s important. You can’t try to imitate anyone’s success; you can’t win by following the rules. But at the same time, from a reader’s perspective (I don’t know about agents), I’m not reading past a first page if it doesn’t violently wrench my heart out of my chest, so I might never get to find out if it’s any good in an entirety. The only exception to that rule tends to be books that have had good press, that have already been vetted as good or already have established authors I enjoy–but what about those debut authors, or the ones left to muddle in their obscurity? Those guys need to pack a punch in order to capture their future audience. Just a thought.

      (Meu pai é do Rio de Janeiro, e eu visitei quando era pequeno. Eu posso ler Português de base, mas pode escrever pouco (falo menos). Eu quero estudar na universidade. O que trouxe você para a Argentina / Brasil? Soa como um lindo lugar para se viver.)

      Ugggh, I’m so embarassed, I needed google translate to write out at least 60% of that. Mas estou aprendendo!


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