The first page, whether it’s a novel, short story, research paper, proposal, etc., is extremely important, if not the most important page in a piece of writing. The first page paves the way for all the other pages. It’s what grabs readers’ attention, or turns them off.
The first page sets the stakes, tone, pace, voice, and setting. It lays out the mood for the entire piece of writing. If you’re writing about a world that has magic, the first page will have magical elements to it.
Similar to how agents spend about three seconds reading a query letter, readers spend seconds on the first page. If the story hasn’t grasped their attention by the end of page one, they’re unlikely to keep reading.
The first page should:
- Set up point of view. Is this first person, third person, second person? Is there one point of view, two, three, more? (If you are writing a multiple point of view story, it’s usually better to write in third person.) Is the point of view more limited or omniscient?
- Show setting. A story begins where and when it does for a specific reason. If the opening page shows your protagonist standing, staring out the fourth floor window of a hospital, while it’s raining and the entire world seems a wash of gray, why is she there?
- Give conflict. This is what’s at stake for the main character. Without conflict there is no story.
- Establish the protagonist. Is the protagonist female or male? How old is the protagonist? What’s her name? Age? Why is she the protagonist? You don’t have to get into the specifics of what the protagonist looks like on the first page, but readers should know what the protagonist looks like very early on.
- Present the tone. Is it unhappy, comical, sassy, peaceful, depressing, angry, or hopeful? There can be layers of tone within a story, especially in novels, but the overall tone remains consistent.
- Introduce pace. Pace is the speed at which a story occurs. Look at detective novels, events in that type of book moves quickly. However, in historical fiction, the pace is generally slower. In Young Adult literature, the pace tends to be fast, while in adult works the pace can be a little more unhurried. Does the novel jump straight into action and drama or does it meander there?
Since the first page is so crucial, it won’t be perfect the first time through. In fact, writing the best first page possible probably won’t happen until you know the entire story. So much of making a story suspenseful and surprising is hinting at what’s to come. Sometimes the foreshadowing is obvious, while other times it’s very subtle, but it’s there. And the only true way to hint at what’s to come is to know the entire story, and the better you know your story, the clearer picture you have of all those elements the first page should contain.
How do you go about writing first pages?