It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of the first page of your novel. Readers at every stage of the process – from the friend you’ve asked to read your first draft, through to agents and publishing professionals, and right on to potential buyers in bookshops and online – make their decisions about whether to read on or put the book down on the basis of that very first page.
The opening of your novel should instantly transport the reader into the world of your story, introducing us to the central characters, the setting, and to the question at the heart of your novel.
We’ve put together some dos and don’ts to help you nail the opening of your story. These are not hard and fast rules – but, as ever, it’s worth knowing what the rules are. If you break them, do so deliberately, rather than accidentally, and with a really good reason for doing so.
Here are our tips for hooking your reader right from the start …
A good first page should:
1. Introduce the reader to one or more characters – and ideally to your protagonist. Show us whose story this is right from the word go.
2. Establish when and where the action is happening. If you’re writing a historical novel, it should be made clear when the story is set straight away. And if you’re struggling to figure out how to do this neatly, remember that it can be as simple as putting a date into your chapter header.
3. If you’re working in an established genre, familiarise yourself with the rules of your genre and make your first page very clearly fit genre readers’ expectations. If you’re writing a crime novel, for example, will you have someone discovering a dead body? Or perhaps you’ll be introducing your series detective? You can also use foreshadowing to hint that something bad is going to happen.
4. Set the tone for the novel. If you’re writing a humorous story, make something funny happen straight away or establish a first person narrative voice that’s full of wit and wry observations. If you’re writing a gothic horror story, you could use the setting – show us that abandoned house and establish an ominous atmosphere. Remember that you can use sensory experience to make it all more visceral for the reader.
5. If your story turns on a central question, make sure you ask that question right there on that first page. Readers will want to read on in order to find out the answer.
6. Make something happen. Get your story going right from the off so that it’s impossible for the reader to put the book down. This doesn’t mean someone needs to burst into a room with a gun (though it can mean that, of course!). Story can turn on the smallest events – as small as a raised eyebrow, even. Give us something that is striking/intriguing/funny – something that sets your plot in motion and your characters into action.
Things not to do on the first page:
1. Don’t open your novel with a cliché. For example, someone waking up in the morning with sunlight streaming through the curtains, or characters stumbling around with hangovers, treading in pizza boxes and ‘padding’ to the bathroom.
2. Don’t open with bodily fluids or scenes that are viscerally repellent – the disgust impulse is a strong one, and it will make your reader want to close the book straight away. You really need to get your reader invested in your characters before you subject them to that sort of content.
3. Don’t start out with long descriptions of landscape and weather that are designed to show the reader what a good writer you are. We don’t need to see you panning around like a camera lens, detailing the hills and the sunset. Instead place a character in that landscape and make something happen.
4. Don’t mention loads of character names glancingly – give the reader something to hold on to.
5. Don’t start off with something wholly irrelevant to your story. You might be surprised by how many first pages we see at Curtis Brown Creative that have little or nothing to do with the story that follows on from them. Give us a first page that puts us right where we want to be – and that’s straight into your novel.
My final piece of advice, though, is not to get yourself too enmired in trying to get your first page absolutely right when you’re still early in your writing process. Once you’ve started work on a novel, forward momentum is all-important. Keep going to the end – and when you’ve finished your novel, you may well have a much clearer sense of how and where it should begin. The first page may well be the very last thing you write.
For more in-depth advice on writing a page-turning story, enrol on one of our popular six-week online How to Write Your Novel courses.
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