Shelley Widhalm

Annoying first pages

In First Page of a Novel, Writing, Writing Processes on August 21, 2016 at 11:00 am

Novels that start with a quote or a dream usually don’t make me want to read anymore—maybe because I’ve been told that agents reject first pages for this reason.

But I think it’s a whole lot more.

There’s something about a first page that makes or breaks the contract between writer and reader. It’s the initial tease, the hook, the pick-me-up line, and it’s what promises the reader something slightly new and different and a reason to keep turning the pages.

I’ve slogged through a few classics, not liking the first page but knowing I should read them because they’re on the lists of what every English major reads. The ones that particularly felt like a chore had too much detail in the first page (and chapter) about the setting with just as lengthy character descriptions, as if setting the stage for the plot to get started pages later.

A great first page has to capture the reader—and it needs to happen in the first paragraph or line, particularly to reel in those who peruse the flap copy and glance at the first few sentences to make a decision on what to read next. The first page needs to hint at the inciting incident, what propels the action of the story forward, and it needs to set up the character’s big unanswered question.

To do this, a good first page needs to have tension, the stretch between what the main character wants but can’t have—at least not yet. The story holds the want back, so the character has to keep striving, resulting in conflict internally and/or externally. The tension increases as the character keeps hearing “no” but can’t give up the desire, though the desire may not be the need, or what that character needs for the world to return back to normal.

Here are other things to keep in mind for a great first page:

  • Avoid back story, but weave it in later in the novel. This moves the story backward.
  • Don’t have the character just reacting, but show that the character will act and take charge in future scenes and conflict. This gets the story moving forward.
  • Involve the reader emotionally, showing what’s at stake for the character. When the character faces difficulty, the character will emotionally respond to those events and situations. If life’s easy, the character will be bored or pleased at the same-old stuff, but there won’t be a story.
  • Set up the conflict, both internal and external, to create the tension.
  • Hint at the character’s fatal flaw, or what will make achieving the desire even more difficult. This provides even more tension.

A great first page gives character and situation, while grounding the story in a setting, including time, place, season and even weather. The basics need to be provided alongside the difference—or what makes this page, and this novel, worthy of hours of investment.

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