Changing the world's opinion… as soon as we finish this math homework
So when this post was originally published, I’d just critiqued thirty-something of your paragraphs as a thank you for your incredible support of this blog, and this article was meant, in a broad sense, to correct some of the common “problems” I noticed. Now that I’m doing some updating, however, I want to preface with two quick things:
First, I’m by no means an expert when it comes to writing first pages, especially because writing is so subjective (after all, deciding whether something is “good” all depends on the reader and his or her personal tastes) that there are always going to be people who disagree on what makes an opening page good or not. Therefore, please take everything I say with a grain of salt; this post is meant to guide, not restrict. Similarly, I also wanted to note that there are always going to be exceptions to what I mention below, as these are less like hard rules and more like looser suggestions. You can without a doubt write an excellent first page using only one or two of the below, but in general, I believe following at least the majority of them will greatly improve your book.
– Open with the main character. Yes, you can most certainly get away with having an opening that does not so much as mention a main character (Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo comes to mind), but generally your first page should, on some level, revolve around a protagonist. Whether she is narrating or performing some sort of action or setting up a scene, it doesn’t matter, but as a reader, I should at least be able to meet her within the first page. After all, your main character is the focal point of your story, so rather than bogging down your first page with passive, third-person narration with no hint at a main character. (For example, avoid an opening that starts with, “Do you think the world is capable of happiness?” and then continues on discussing happiness, because it doesn’t ground us in a main character; similarly, you shouldn’t start your book with very general musings, like “a man can see anything in art. In a mural, he might see… [insert thing here]” in which the “man” is not a character in the story.)
– Make it active. If you’re writing fiction, opening your book with several deep lines about death or dreams or how the soap bottle the protagonist is staring at reminds her of the beauty of life, while it sometimes can work, is generally not the best way to go. Save the ruminations for later in the story, and instead make your first page active. Start it into the action. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to introduce the main character while she’s on the run for her life, but something does need to be happening to move the plot forward, even as the characters are being introduced. Because if the book starts with the protagonist just staring at the wall and thinking about her life, that’s a little bit too boring, and being that your first page is precious real estate when it comes to hooking the reader, give them a reason to keep reading; start with action.
– Add a punchy first line. Although this is most certainly not necessary, a punchy first line can go a long way in pulling the reader into your story, which is why I suggest writers use one (if they can). Something succinct and flavorful is all you need. I love to use Mindy McGinnis’ first line in Not A Drop To Drink as an example, because it’s strong, to-the-point, and it adds in immediate intrigue by focusing on what makes the book unique: “Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond.”
– Give it some flavor. Every book has its own, unique feel, and while the first page most certainly doesn’t need to capture all of this, it should at least give the reader a small taste of the “flavor” of the book, or, perhaps more accurately, of the main character’s voice. For example, if you main character is generally snarky, add in a snarky line somewhere in your first page; if he is more awkward and sarcastic, have him make a stupid pun to “ease the tension”; or if it’s dark and tense, slip in a line about the ruthlessness of the world (or something better.) Stuff like that; your book has a unique flavor, so don’t be afraid to show that off. It will only help you, trust me.
– Avoid info-dumping. Info-dumping, for those who don’t know, is the throwing of massive amounts of background information/setting descriptions/something along those lines at the reader all at once. Although you can often get away with a large info-dump if said info is exciting enough to sustain a reader’s interest–think Delirium by Lauren Oliver–but often that is reserved for particularly unique world-building; if you don’t have that, impossible-to-miss hook that dystopias tend to, it’s best to feed the reader background information little by little throughout the book, not all in the first page. And yes, this partially draws on my mention of “make it active,” but do not spend your entire first page describing the setting, or your main character’s dark past, or his boyfriend’s hair. Frankly, we don’t want to know what the character looks like yet; we want to know the character himself. And to do this, something needs to be happening. It doesn’t have to be actual, physical action, but you should at least make the reader aware of some sort of tension within the first page. (For example, Divergent opens with Tris preparing for her choosing ceremony by letting her mom clean her up as she stares at the mirror. Despite being a cliche, this works because, even though there is no real physical action, Tris very quickly lets the reader know about the tension surrounding her choosing ceremony, and that tension is enough to drive the plot forward and thus hook the reader. Think about it: if Tris didn’t have the choosing ceremony coming up, and she was just randomly staring at herself in the mirror with no signs of any sort of plot, would you have read on?)
– But most of all, you are awesome, and with enough revision, your first page will be, too.