Teens Can Write, Too!

Changing the world's opinion… as soon as we finish this math homework

How To Write An Opening Page

Update: 4/1/14

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. 

 

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About Michael Waters

I'm Michael, I'm eighteen, and I blog about YA books for Barnes & Noble.

29 comments on “How To Write An Opening Page

  1. mangycat
    October 15, 2012

    This is fantastic, John! I work with teen writers a lot, and you have some seriously sound advice here. Keep up the good work!

    • John Hansen
      October 16, 2012

      Thanks!

  2. Elizabeth
    October 16, 2012

    Thanks for the great post John. Your advice is really helpful. I especially like your tip about starting actively, it’s something I’ll try to remember and use.

    In terms of voice, all the examples are written in first person. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on voice in third person narratives?

    • John Hansen
      October 16, 2012

      Thanks!

      Third person voice is a bit trickier, but it’s equally important. You might want to read the first few pages of THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT by Jennifer Smith to get a good idea of how to do voice in third person well.

      • Elizabeth
        October 18, 2012

        Thanks! I’ll have a look.

  3. Charley R
    October 16, 2012

    Fantastic post – and very true! Can’t count the number of times I’ve rolled my eyes as the YA teen narrator starts fantasising about the meaning of life while feeding the fish!

    • Miss Alexandrina
      October 16, 2012

      Actually, I object to that point, Charleyy; I contemplate the meaning of life whilst feeding the fish (well, an exaggeration: my fish died years ago, but you know what I mean)!

      • Charley R
        October 16, 2012

        I stand corrected! I bow to your superior knowledge 😉

      • Miss Alexandrina
        November 14, 2012

        Hey, Charley, I was reminded of this conversation recently because I was having a mock university interview, and one of the things I had put on my personal statement was ‘I believe one of the big questions of our time is ‘what is reality?” To which my interviewer commented ‘not many 17/18-year-olds contemplate this’.
        xD

    • John Hansen
      October 16, 2012

      Hahaha!

  4. Miss Alexandrina
    October 16, 2012

    John, you mentioned antagonist prologues, but what’s your opinion on prologues from a Supporting Character’s POV?

    • John Hansen
      October 16, 2012

      I think it depends. I’d prefer that you start with your MC, but starting with a supportive character is not unheard of. It’s just harder to perfect, and may end up hurting more than it helps.

  5. Miriam Joy
    October 16, 2012

    When you have a multiple POV story – i.e., four first-person narrators who take it in turns to narrate a chapter each – is it forbidden to start from one that’s not the absolute MC of the novel? In book one of Death and Fairies (“Watching”), I start from Alex’s point of view, and he’s the MC. But in book two (“Destroying”), it starts with Aifa’s POV, and although she’s one of the main ‘players’ in the story, the book doesn’t revolve around her – it revolves around Alys. Yet reversing the chapters doesn’t work as hers happens at an earlier point in time and is the set up for what comes next. I was wondering what your opinion on this was – and whether the rules are different when it’s a sequel, too.

    • John Hansen
      October 16, 2012

      I think for a sequel, what you have is okay. I wouldn’t recommend starting a first book with a non-MC–though it is possible–but you can get away with it more in a sequel, when the reader already knows the characters.

      • Miriam Joy
        October 16, 2012

        Fair enough! Thanks 😀 She narrates the most chapters, I believe, so it depends on your definition of ‘main’ character. The ‘main’ character is unconscious for a lot of the book 😉
        (I had difficulty with book one because I wasn’t sure who was my main character. Though more of the story revolves around Alex, his story wouldn’t exist without Jennie… but eventually I decided that he was the MC so wrote him a chapter at the beginning instead of opening with Jennie.)

  6. gabriellan
    October 16, 2012

    Reblogged this on Of a Writerly Sort.

  7. dreamsinsong
    October 16, 2012

    I like your article, and agree with most of your points, but I have to disagree with your comment about starting with the main character. Some of the best novels of all time opened with a passage that didn’t mention the main character at all.

    Example: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of Number Four, Privet Drive were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much…”

    Just saying. Of course, then there’s the saying that “rules are made to be broken,” which I always say is especially true for literature.

    • John Hansen
      October 16, 2012

      Yes, there are plenty of examples of famous books that start without the MC, but those books break the rules WELL and get away with it. You can try and start without your MC, too, but it’s going to be extremely tricky to make it work. If that makes sense?

      Thanks for the input!

  8. Jasmine
    October 16, 2012

    I just wanted to thank you muchly for including my paragraph. 🙂 I’m glad you liked it so much! And you’ve got some excellent advice– no info-dumping, open with action, etc. Thanks for writing this! ❤

    • John Hansen
      October 17, 2012

      Haha, no problem!

  9. Kirsten
    October 16, 2012

    I don’t know about always opening with the MC. Especially if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, I feel like it’s important to create an establishing paragraph or two before the real story begins. I like to think of it as the establishing shot of a film that brings you into the world of the story before really delving in. Of course, this isn’t really needed in contemporary literature, romance, horror, or a bunch of other genres, but I feel like the more world-driven genres do need a little bit before the story starts.

    • John Hansen
      October 16, 2012

      I think the thing is, this occassionally works, but not usually. I’m okay with opening setting SOMETIMES if the MC narrates it, but in a lot of cases I’m referring to it, it was just description without any sort of characters or narration introduced. Your point is valid, though, and even though it’s best to stick with opening with your MC most of the time, you don’t HAVE to; I just think you have to nail down setting really well (i.e. if you have a lot of emotion in the writing, it works) to use it as your opening.

      Thanks for the input!

      • Kirsten
        October 16, 2012

        I do agree that getting that voice in is very important. I just wanted to add that like there are many ways to approach the beginning of a film, there are many ways to open a story. Then again, I tend to write in third person semi-ominescent, but that’s just me.

  10. bandersontps
    October 17, 2012

    Reblogged this on worldpen and commented:
    Excellent advice. I think I have a problem with not starting out with my MC. In my first novel, he’s not introduced until the 3rd chapter. And in my second he’s not introduced until the 2nd. Maybe this time, for my NaNo third novel he’ll be in the 1st chapter. *progression*

  11. Patrice
    October 17, 2012

    Great post! I think voice is so important, I’ve been told I have voice, *wipes sweat from brow* thanks goodness, but honestly I don’t know how I got it. However I do think a great exercise is to write an important/revealing scene from all of the character’s point of view, etc…free write about the life of your characters. That has helped me so much with not only finding out more about my characters but developing my voice as well.

    Happy writing to all 🙂

    • John Hansen
      October 17, 2012

      Oooh, good idea! Thanks!

  12. Erin
    October 18, 2012

    Er, I don’t want to sound snotty John, but I think you forgot to critique my paragraph. Or maybe you ignored it on purpose… 😉

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  14. Pingback: Writing A Pitch | Teens Can Write, Too!

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