Nothing brings a writer more agony than writing the first page of their novel. There are plenty of articles listing what not to do on the first page, but what writers really need is a list of “dos”
What a first page must do
1. Start the story
This might seem like a facepalm piece of advice, but I’ve seen enough manuscripts to know that too many writers do not start their stories on the first page. They use it to world-build, or describe their characters, or backstory dump, pretty much anything except get the plot rolling.
How do we start the story?
Identify your story’s inciting incident. (Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place.) Now work backward. Map out the specific list of events that leads your character to that moment. In this case, we see Katniss in her daily struggles to feed her family. The entire purpose of the exposition is to show how Katniss feels responsible for Prim, and she is willing to risk her life for her sister.
How far back should I go?
Only go back as far as the reader needs to understand the inciting incident. For some stories that might only be a few minutes. In the case of the Hunger Games, Collins only went back to the morning of the Reaping. Why? Because this was the only day that was different. Going back further wouldn’t add anything to the story.
2. Introduce the world/setting
Wait, didn’t you just say not to?
Introducing the setting does not mean sitting at a table describing it. It means showing your characters interacting with the setting and showing how the setting affects your characters.
The pantry was empty. It looked full, but there was nothing in those boxes. A couple of noodles, a bit of cereal, not enough to make a meal so no one ate them, but no one would throw them out either. So they just sat there day after day turning into dust. Like everything else in this house. Grandma’s flower couch, my uncle’s recliner, that still reeked of cigarettes, the wobbly table mom picked up in a thrift shop.
It’s a good description, but it doesn’t move the story forward. Instead, show the setting’s effect on the character.
The pantry was empty. It looked full, but there was nothing in those boxes. A couple of noodles, a bit of cereal, not enough to make a meal so no one ate them, but no one would throw them out either.
My stomach growled. For some reason, it’s the only thing around here that never learned to give up. Maybe I can get a dollar out of Mom’s purse. She’s always got a few stashed back for cigarettes.
In the second example, we aren’t just told about her poverty, we see its effect on the character. Now the setting provides motivation for action, propelling the story forward.
3. Hook the reader
Hooking the reader is nothing more than raising a question. There must be something on the first page that propels the reader to learn more.
Hooks can come in several forms.
- An interesting world/premise- This is difficult to accomplish, make sure you have something truly unique. Pride, and Prejudice, and Zombies is a good example.
- A compelling mystery- Mysteries, thrillers, cop procedurals, and sometimes horror novels use this hook.
- Emotional hook- A powerful emotional connection formed between the character and the reader.
Conflict gets a star because it will be present in all the other hooks.
There’s some debate about whether the conflict must begin on page 1 or even line 1. I’ve heard both, and there are plenty of examples where either is true.
Before I elaborate on this question, I need to distinguish between conflict (a problem a character faces in a story) and Conflict (the main obstacle in a novel)
Does the story’s main Conflict need to appear on page 1?
There can be hints. It can be in the background or foreshadowed. All these are fine, but it is not necessary to have the story’s main Conflict appear on page 1. While some stories can begin this way, there are plenty of novels where tripping over the villain on the first page simply wouldn’t work.
Rules for conflict on page 1
Yes! There must be a conflict on page 1. Some people will say from the opening line, but I give writers till the end of the first paragraph, (assuming the first three sentences work together as a whole.)
This conflict must be:
Your readers must be able to understand the problem without any explanation. If you’re not sure, consult Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. No matter what your setting is, people will understand conflicts from this list: hunger, shelter, safety, group identity, etc. If a reader can’t understand a conflict, she cannot empathize with the character.
The conflict must be right in front of the character. Your character can’t be sitting in a coffee shop thinking about her problem. It needs to be right there in the same room with her. She needs to be actively struggling against it. If you find your character sitting and thinking about the problem that happened last week, switch to that scene and show that event.
Writing a compelling conflict is nothing more than presenting the first two points in an interesting way. If you’ve succeeded in the first two points, the reader will naturally want to know if the character overcomes the obstacle. Even the most mundane conflicts can become interesting if the character is sympathetic. We make the character sympathetic by showing the character struggle.
Now improve the conflict by adding the consequences of failure.
All conflicts must have stakes (consequences for failure). Pay attention to the balance between the two. Stakes that are too extreme or not strong enough are not compelling. Again, make sure the stakes are clear and relatable to the audience.
Part of the character’s journey
Whatever the conflict is on the first page, it must be the first stepping stone on the character’s journey. The consequences of whatever choices the character makes on the first page need to lead into the next conflict.
This is called “Yes, but, or no, and” style plotting. If you use another plotting method, you can use this as a test to make sure all your elements tie together.
How it works:
At the end of a scene (or scene/sequel unit) ask: Was the conflict solved?
Answer the question:
Yes, but…The solution caused another problem
No, and…this is how things got worse.
Using this simple device will help you make sure your conflict chain remains unbroken through the entire novel.
The first page is the most important page in your story
The first page is the introduction to your entire novel. It is the gateway that will either hook a reader or turn them away. Writing a compelling first page can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. By following these steps, you can create an opening that will draw your reader into the story, and guarantee they will turn the page.
Further reading: (It is affiliate, but I genuinely recommend this book.)