Compelling First Pages

a drawing of a giant book standin gin a countryside, with a tree and chair in the open pages, and birds and clouds swirling around the top of it

Novels need a first page that hooks the reader—whether it’s the agent you’re querying or the potential buyer browsing your book. Last week at the RWA conference I attended a panel of agents and editors assessing first pages of novels, as well as a session on submitting your novel that included tips for an effective first page. The first pages read aloud were all well written, but a few suggestions kept popping up.

Set the Scene, with Balance

Many of the first pages leapt into a scene, starting mid-fight or mid-dialogue. Over and over, the agents and editors commented, “We need to be grounded in the location” or “I need to know what genre this novel is.” Interestingly, no pages began with a long-winded description of the setting. I figured that all the writers had been told to start mid-scene and warned away from the long description, and gone to the opposite extreme, starting so mid-scene that readers could not understand the action, and providing no setting at all. One of the agents said, “Don’t throw the reader into the middle of the action if it is confusing. Start a breath before the action.”

In addition to providing a basic setting (time period and location, real or imaginary), the setting should be special to the book—not a travel guide–like description but a place that resonates with the story and couldn’t be swapped for any other location.

Make It Easy on the Reader

drawing of signpost with signs pointing to "historical" and "contemporary"

Getting into the story should be as easy for the reader as possible. Don’t take too long to get to the point (the interesting point, that makes the reader want more). Convey the story’s genre as soon as possible so the reader knows what to expect. Don’t introduce too many names all at once, or try to describe an entire family history or the entire setup of a fantasy world. Give enough interesting details that the reader wants to keep going, but don’t cram everything in at once.

Make sure the beginning is clear and understandable. In particular, don’t have too many “layers of remove”—for example, the character starts daydreaming of a different scene, or we enter a flashback. Make it easy for the reader to follow along.

Propel the Reader Forward

a drawing of a notebook with flowers around it' the notebook contains first lines of books: "Once upon a time..." "She thrust the sword into her foe and it stilled. She remembered the last time..." and "'Hey, how's it going?' the demon said. he sipped his latte..."

The first page should not be an average day in the main character’s life, or a mundane scenario that the reader has seen time and again. Something should make the day special. The reader should also have a reason to root for the main character. A glimpse of “regular life” is needed, too, so that the reader can see why the day is different than usual. Just don’t get bogged down. For example, don’t include mundane dialogue (even if in real life, people might have such a dialogue).

The first page should create some sort of tension, by presenting the conflict that the main character faces or hinting at the coming conflict. But then this tension must be maintained—don’t drop it after the first paragraph to set the scene or give background. Those setting and background details should be woven into the story in bits so that the main focus is the tension-filled story that maintains the reader’s interest.


2 responses to “Compelling First Pages”

  1. Angie McMann Avatar
    Angie McMann

    This is a fantastic breakdown. Thanks for sharing it!

    1. Thanks Angie, I’m glad you liked it.

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