The best advice I’ve ever heard in regards to writing the first page of a novel is that you should, counter to all instincts, never try to write it first.
The reasons behind this advice make sense. The first page has to do a lot of work. It’s entirely possible that, when you begin writing a story, you simply don’t know it well enough to write your first pages.
Because there are a lot of things your first page needs to do, and lot of ways it can go wrong.
What Your First Page Needs To Do
The first page of your novel is very likely the thing that people read after the jacket copy and before they decide to buy (or not). I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly how I vet books.
I’ll pick up a book because the cover copy grabs my attention, but then I flip to the first page. If I’m still standing there reading it three minutes later, if I can’t bear to put it down and leave it behind, well – I’m going to have to buy it.
There are five things that, if they’re done well on the first page, will keep me reading (and eventually buying) your book. The first page of your book must:
- Introduce your narrator. This seems like a no brainer, but a lot of manuscripts I’ve read in workshops spend A LOT of time setting the scene of their story. Important, yes, but not as important as introducing me to the character I’m going to give a shit about for the next 300+ pages.
- Establish us in time and place. Some books cheat this one and simply use the date and place in a chapter title, like: San Francisco 2001. I’m okay with that, but even with the cheat, I want to read about the time and place in the prose, right off. Show me the foggy streets, let me smell the coffee, have someone ride past on a segway.
- Set the tone. If it’s funny, make me laugh. If it’s a sweeping epic novel, use language that feels as much. If it’s a modern, skeptical story, throw in some curse words.
- Demonstrate your writing chops. Take time with your first sentences. Consider how they represent you as a writer. Let them be beautiful (or hard, or scathing or languid – whatever you’re going for). At the very least, make sure everything is grammatically accurate (sometimes – I’m looking at the self-publishing folks here – hiring a copy editor can make all the difference).
- Hint at the story to come. To keep me reading you have to show me a character who wants something (your character needs to want something), then pose the question: will your main character get whatever it is they want?
Ways Those First Pages Can Go Wrong
Some ways you can fuck it up right quick:
- Open with a dream sequence. Apparently this is a big pet peeve of agents and editors. I have to agree. If you suck us into a world, get us invested what is happening, why (oh why!?!) would you yank us from that by making it all a dream. Don’t do it. It’s annoying.
- Be unclear in any way about what’s happening. If I can’t follow what’s happening in the first page of your story, odds are the situation is not going to improve. Keep it simple. Stay in scene. Don’t jump to flashbacks too quickly or try to pack in a ton of backstory. Get us on board before you do anything crazy.
- Use too many names right up front. If I feel the need to diagram the characters in your novel to keep track of who’s who, I’m putting the book down. I don’t want to work that hard. Give names where they’re important, when the character is important. Let the community of characters unfold gently.
- Try to tell a lot of backstory too early. I heard some writer somewhere (Isabel Allende, maybe?) say that she has to write a hundred pages before she finds page 1. Those 100 pages get cut and become the back story – the stuff she needed to know about the story before starting, but it doesn’t belong at the front. She weaves it into the story as she writes it, dropping bits of backstory where it’s needed.
So Where to Start?
Knowing that our first pages are so important can make them feel pretty weighty when you sit down to write. It’s easy enough to say “write the first page last,” but in actuality, you do have to write something first, and isn’t that, by definition, the first page?
I have two suggestions:
- Go ahead and write the opening scene as you see it in your head, but understand and accept that it will probably change. OR
- Don’t start at the beginning. Start writing somewhere in the middle. Jump around. Just because we read from front to back, doesn’t mean you have to write that way.
How do you deal with the first page? Do you write it first or last? How do you know where to start your story?