Picture the scene; you’re waiting for your date to arrive. This is your first time meeting them, and you’re sitting in a café wearing, and looking, your best. You’re probably keeping your eyes on the entrance. Finally, someone enters the shop, and you think to yourself – that’s them. They walk over to the table, sit down opposite you, and the first thing that comes out of your mouth is “Huh, you’re taller than I was expecting.” Congratulations. You had one chance to make a good first impression, and you completely blew it!
People approach books like they’re on a date; the decision on whether to buy your book or not can made in a matter of seconds. It can be down to a number of factors, some of which are completely out of your control. For example, if you’re talented enough to get a book deal, you will have basically zero input on the book’s cover, and the cover can absolutely make-or-break a book.
However, what you can control is the first page. Some readers might look at it in the shop, some won’t, but let’s assume either way they’ve decided to take your book home with them. Your book holds a rich, beautiful world, with interesting characters and a complex, gripping narrative. Well done for writing such a superb book, but all of that is meaningless if the reader can’t get past the first page.
It’s unbelievably important to get it right, because its job is simple; to get the reader interested enough to turn the page. Chances are, if they turn the page just once, then you’ve got them. So, to begin with, what does the first page actually do?
- It establishes a pact with the reader
Readers are just as involved in the writing process as the writer. As soon as you write a story, you’re making a couple of promises to your eventual reader. The first is simply that they will enjoy your book in some manner, whether it’s by being thrilled, saddened, or uplifted. The next is that, after reading, they will come away with more than they started with; a new perspective on life, knowledge they didn’t possess, or confirmation on what they did know. Some readers just want to be entertained, others want to put a book down and have an epiphany. Whatever it is you want them to feel, you need to make it evident at the start.
- It sets expectations
When someone picks up your book, looks at the cover, and reads the blurb at the back, they’ll already start to have expectations and assumptions about what it is they’re in for. Your first page must meet these expectations, if you’re to be successful. Let’s say your cover page shows two people holding hands, and a glossy title like “What Love Is”; your reader will probably expect a romance story. If they open the book, and the first page is about a goblin eviscerating a giant spider, and eating it, they’re going to be more than a little confused. Make sure your start is an accurate representation of what is to follow.
So, in a nutshell, the first page tells the reader “This is what you can expect when you read my book.” With that in mind, we’ll now look at how you can tell the reader this, and how to make a great opening:
- The first sentence is vital
Before going any further, I must stress this point. As I said, the decision to read your book can be made in seconds, so you absolutely must have a good opening sentence. Whether it stretches into a paragraph, or stands alone, is up to you, but it’s got to be enough to hold your reader, because if it isn’t then they may put the book down as early as that. A lot has to be achieved in this one sentence, and you’ll be surprised by how much information you can fit into it.
- Start with character
A good place to start is with your main character, or at least a prominent character throughout the book. However, don’t start with physical details like their face, because you can (and should) work these into the narrative as you progress. Imagine you’re introducing them, as if they’re real, to a friend; you wouldn’t start by saying “This is Lily, her face is round, she had blonde hair, and she isn’t smiling.”Instead, introduce the character in such a manner that it tells us something, and this can be about them/their personality, where they are in the world, a problem they’re facing, etc. While you may want to focus on just one thing, it is possible to fit all of these (and more) into your opening. Let’s look at the opening to Leviathan Wakes by James A. Corey:
The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.
In just seventeen words, we know a) a character’s name, and b) where they are. We also know, from the end of the sentence, that something bad has happened, or that the character is in a difficult position, which gives the reader questions that will be answered in the coming paragraphs. So take a look at your first scene and ask yourself; how can you introduce a character in such a way that the reader learns who they are, where they are, and what’s happening? If you can give the reader these early details, and introduce some element of mystery, they’ll want to read on.
- Start with conflict
At some point in your story, your character(s) will have to come up against some obstacle, or be in opposition to something. Conflict lies at the heart of every good book, and they can be concrete things (like a rival company), or abstract (an emotion, such as heartbreak or grief) that must be overcome. With that said, starting with a conflict is a great way of opening a book. As with character, it can introduce any number of things. The start of William Nicholson’s The Wind Singer is ride with conflict:
At the time the strangers came, the Manth people were still living in the low mat-walled shelters that they had carried with them in their hunting days.
Conflict is immediately present, between the Manth people and the mysterious “strangers”. Cleverly, Nicholson also tell us a bit about the Manth; they seem like a primitive, nomadic group, that literally take their homes around with them when they hunt. Later on, in the same paragraph, we learn a bit more about these strangers; they seem to speak little, and give no indication to the Manth as to who they are, or why they’re there. However, this opening sentence is enough to suggest that something is going to occur between the Manth and the strangers, and the reader will only find out what if they keep reading (providing you fulfill this, of course!)
- Start with setting
I’ve already talked about why setting is important and what it can do, so it should come as no surprise that I talk about it here. You can use setting to introduce so many other elements of your story, and it can be a great gateway to the rest of your novel, particularly if the setting is important. Take the introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as an example:
The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means – it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.
We get an immediate sense of the physical landscape, but Douglas Adams also uses the description of the setting to help introduce the book’s humorous tone. If you do decide to start with this kind of approach, be sure to not make your descriptions too cliché or bland, particularly if your setting is meant to convey some tone or emotion to the reader. Make sure, if combining tone and setting, that they match!
I’m sorry to say this, but your job as a writer is very difficult. Everything rides on the opening page, and a flat, lifeless, or generally uninteresting beginning can completely kill even the most gripping of plot twists. If you’re not sure how to start your book, my advice is to look back over some of your favourite books and read over the opening page two or three times. Make a note of what aspects of writing the author is using, and ask yourself – what did they do that made you want to read on?
You may think you have a best-selling book, and maybe you do. But it’s your job to convince the reader that it’s worth reading, because first impressions are vital to the success of any relationship. And yes, the writer and reader do have a relationship. You should never treat writing a book as a solo effort. The actual physical act of writing is (to an extent, though feedback is important!) but, once it’s done, you’re not the one that will be reading it. You have to write for your reader, so make the first page something your reader wants to read.