Updated: Jun 29, 2022
The first page of your novel should be an indicator of what’s to come—a taste of the wine before you order the bottle. The first page is what a lot of readers who browse their local bookstores glance at before deciding whether or not to purchase your book. So how do you make sure your book passes that bookstore test? There are a few ways to do this:
First, and perhaps the most obvious—Write a winning first sentence!
Punch the reader in the face with that first sentence. It’s your first chance to really wow them
and immerse them in your world, almost daring them to read on. The opening line is the “hook” that spurs the curiosity in your readers to find out what happens to the protagonist next. Suzanne Collins’s behemoth of a series, The Hunger Games, starts with, “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” From this one sentence, the reader is wondering, “Why is this character reaching out to feel this coldness?
Who is usually in this bed with this character? What happened to the person who usually sleeps there?” An effective first sentence encourages the reader to ask questions and will compel that reader to continue with the story in order to answer these questions.
In Medias Res
The Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things,” in medias res storytelling is when an author starts their story in the midst of the plot. This is an historical technique that draws the reader in by skipping over exposition and jumping into the story at a pivotal or emotional scene. A great example of an in medias res storytelling is the first page of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight: “I'd never given much thought to how I would die—though I'd had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”
Here, Meyer took a sample of Twilight’s climax and placed it at the beginning of her novel as a sort of teaser for the audience.
Likewise, in medias res is utilized in successful Indie author Allison Ivy’s The Dragon and the
Double-Edged Sword. In it, the main character, Lysandra, is fighting for her life against a mythical creature. In both novels, the reader doesn’t have any backstory starting out. They are thrown into the story events and whisked away on the character’s journey right from the start of the book (but the middle of the protagonist’s story).
The “Implicit Promise”
The “implicit promise” is a technique mentioned by popular science fiction writer, Nancy Kress, in her 2011 book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing). Kress writes of two kinds of promises—“emotional” and “intellectual.” Essentially (and I’m heavily paraphrasing here), you want to “promise” the reader that your story will grab them emotionally while also unveiling something about the world to them. It must be noted that you should always deliver on these promises through the rest of your book’s pages. Don’t leave the reader feeling cheated.
Show. Don’t Tell.
This is an age-old virtue. May sure that winning first sentence puts the reader right in the way of your punchy first sentence. A quick check to see if you’re telling, rather than showing, is anytime you say a character “felt” something—with few exceptions. For example, did your main character feel fear or did their heart pound so hard against their ribcage, they thought it would jump out of their chest?
Having a connection to the characters makes all the difference in a reading experience. You want them to empathize with a character’s failure or to cheer them on with every goal they meet. If a character doesn’t garner that empathy, it will be very easy for the reader to put the book down and find someone they do care about.
Don’t Be “Wordy"
Use one (but no more than two) adjectives. It’s important to paint the rich world you’ve created, but don’t go overboard. If you do, it may drag the story down. You want your prose to flow and keep the reader’s attention.
This is also true if you use too many adverbs. Stephen King said in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one in your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you’ll find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”
Avoid flashbacks right off the bat – what does the reader have to “flash back” to if they’ve just started your story? You need to make these characters connect with the reader with who they are now before their past even matters to your audience. The reader needs “footing” in your world before even contemplating what that world used to be.
Wrapping it Up
It’s very easy to overthink a first page but following these guidelines should be a great start to
fleshing out your best “bookstore test.” Just don’t start with the old cliché, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and you’ll be fine!
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below how you handle your first page.
Until next time, happy writing.
J. V. Hilliard
Mentioned in this post:
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Nancy Kress (2011)
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (2000)
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)
The Dragon and the Double-Edged Sword by Allison Ivy (2017)
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (2005)