Tag Archives: how to start a novel

That Critical First Page: Grabbing Readers Attention in Seconds

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?
  • Article Lead - wide62398472115ew6image.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.115eyw.png1413437505967.jpg-620x349Show 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.
  • pacing trIntroduce 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?

(Photos courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald and Fiction University.)

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That Pesky First Sentence

You’ve got the premise of your novel. You know your characters, the central conflict, and the ending. You may even know how you want to start your novel, but you can’t figure out that first sentence.3261090753_48fa0fe0a2

The opening sentence to a novel is very important. Many people, including a number of agents and editors, will not read beyond the first sentence if they don’t like it. (That’s a lot of pressure on the first sentence!) That’s why writing a stellar first sentence is monumental. More often than not, what you originally think of for the opening line is not what ends up as the first sentence.

That’s perfectly fine. In fact, in most cases, that’s probably a good thing.

Great opening lines lure readers in. They entice them.

First lines can be:

  • Vivid. “The rabbit had been run over minutes before.” Sabriel by Garth Nix

Most people have seen an animal that’s been hit by a car before, so this sentence sends an instant picture to the forefront of readers’ minds.

  • Create a specific image. “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

Readers get an image of a woman entering an apartment, who is identical to the narrator’s wife, but who doesn’t seem to be her. That’s distinct, and catches the attention. (For those familiar with psychology, Capgras Syndrome probably comes to mind.)

  • Ask a question. “They hung the Unregistereds in the old warehouse district; it was a public execution, so everyone went to see.” The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

Who are the “Unregistereds?” Why are they being hung? With that first sentence, readers have questions they want answered.

  • Foreshadow. “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” Twilight By Stephanie Meyer

Regardless of whether or not you’re a Twilight fan, the opening line of Stephanie Meyer’s preface leaves readers wondering what’s going to happen to the protagonist to make her think like that.

  • State something absurd. “It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Really? A pleasure? Right away readers want to know what Bradbury is talking about.

  • Clear. “It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.” Delirium by Lauren Olivier

Readers get a quick summary of the past sixty-some years, and also know what’s going to play a big part in the novel.

  • Short and to the point. “I am the vampire Lestat.” The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

This line does nothing overtly other than introduce readers to the protagonist. However, it’s a very impactful line, and says a lot about the character we’ll be following.

  • Surprising. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell

Clocks don’t strike thirteen, so what’s going on? One sentence in and there’s already an unexpected question in readers’ minds.

First lines vary widely from each other because books vary widely. A wonderful opening sentence for one novel won’t be right for another one. But what all successful opening lines do is capture readers’ attention.

How do you write a great first line?

Practice.

There’s no getting around it. Write an opening sentence, get feedback on it, rewrite it, get more feedback, and repeat that cycle until people are hooked on your opening sentence.

Another piece of advice?

Don’t fret too much about the opening line until after your first draft is written. As you write your novel, more ideas come to you, and your novel may take a drastic turn during the course of your writing. Once you have all eight-thousand or so words written, then go back to the beginning. Who knows? Maybe you’ll need to rewrite the entire opening to fit your novel’s ending.

What’s your favorite opening line from a novel you’ve read?