First Pages: Making Sure Your Novel’s Beginning Isn’t Its End

There are certain dos and don’ts you can think about when you’re writing that first page. First pages are critical. They’ll either excite your potential reader enough to keep reading or annoy them to the point where they drop your book before giving it a chance. I know. No pressure, right? Don’t let the first page stop you from starting though. The important thing is to begin writing period. Get your idea down, make a rough draft, and just tell the story before you lose the idea or drive to create. Then go back. Study that first page. Tear it apart, rewrite it, explore your options. Question everything. Does it hook you immediately? Is it boring? Could it be improved?

Imagine someone who doesn’t know the story picking up your novel for the first time. They don’t know about that awesome twist that comes in the middle, the tearjerker ending, that super witty exchange of dialogue you created on page 132, or if and when the novel really gets good. All they know is that first page. So is it good enough to make the reader stick with your book long enough to discover all those other great things? Or is your beginning actually the novel’s end? And by end I mean death. Because no book can live and enjoy a long life with its readers if it never gets taken home.  So do right by your book and give it the beginning it deserves, not the one you think it needs. Yes, I’m indirectly quoting a certain bat-themed superhero movie.

Moving on.

Here are some tips, rules, and examples to get you thinking. Some should be followed. Some should be broken.

Open With Action

Generally this is good. Action means excitement right from the start. We don’t have to wait for the novel to pick up because, bam, it started with a bang. Just make sure your action serves the story and isn’t a cheap special effect. And don’t make it last too long. Tease me and make me curious, but let there be an end in sight. What makes action good and spicy at the start can be lost if you spend the first ten pages on it.

Showing & Telling

Show, don’t tell. I hate this phrase. I hate hearing it, I hate reading it, I hate that it’s everyone’s go to piece of writing advice everywhere, all the time, forever. But dammit it’s some good advice. For example if your MC, or main character, is a burglar with a heart of gold who robs corrupt socialites and then anonymously donates the score to charities and those in need, show me that, don’t say it. Don’t say, “I’m a professional thief who is tired of the corruption in my town. At night I make a difference by stealing from the rich, and the next day I attain justice by giving that money to the ones who really need it.” Don’t narrate who he is and what he does. Throw me into the robbery. Write about the reactions of the recipients of the money or the rage of the people who were stolen from. Make it all tie together until we can see why your character does what he does and how it affects everyone else.

Description of Setting: I’m Looking at You, Tolkien

For the love of god, please, don’t start your book with paragraphs of description, especially if you’re describing the setting or mood. Tolkien, I love you to death, but sometimes I just want to cry in frustration at your pages and pages of details. Usually, I’m good with a couple sentences of description. I like to infer and imagine some of it on my own. Give me the building blocks, enough to form an image and follow the flow of the story. Then let me color in the rest. Think of it that way. Like a coloring book. What you write is the black outline of the shapes on the page. What the reader does is color in the shapes. Everyone’s won’t look alike, but it will always start from the same groundwork.

Starting in the Middle

The way I use this in my third novel is by including a page before the actual first chapter. It isn’t really a prologue; it’s an excerpt of a piece of action that happens much later in the story. It tells the reader they can expect this to occur later in the plot, and then when they begin the book they wonder how in the hell the characters start at point A and end up at that point B later on. What changes? How do things progress to that point?

Another example is that initially in my first book I began at the start. And by that I mean it was the first day of school, and I was introducing all the classes and all the characters in a nice little linear succession. This is my first class, this is my second class, now it’s time for lunch, now the day is over, this is best friend1, best friend2, ex-girlfriend, enemy, love interest, etc. I realized that was tedious later. Instead, I changed things to where it wasn’t the first day, but just any old day at school, and the characters didn’t get stupid intros like that, they were just there. My main character wouldn’t have a need to introduce everything he already knew. It was his life, just another day, and the people in it had been there all along. I wanted the readers to feel like they were part of his day, not being introduced to every new thing like an awkward acquaintance. A friend would know these things already and be immersed right into it.

Back Story- Save It for Later

Another mistake I made in book one was starting with two pages of back story. I was explaining why my MC’s father suddenly moved home, how it felt to lose his mom and meet his dad again after over ten years apart, how their relationship has been since then, and how his friends help him deal. It’s all important information. But not how you want to start a book. I needed to build up to that and be giving away tidbits of back story in the meantime while I was setting up the plot and relationships. Eventually those pages of back story became spread out. Instead of leaving it as pages of information, I broke it up into paragraphs and incorporated places to fit it in in the middle of the narrative. That way readers understand where my MC is coming from without the plot being broken up with heavy explanations. Show the back story as you go. Make it relevant to the characters’ present. It’s part of their development.

Flashbacks & Dreams

I’m not saying don’t use this at all. Dreams are an important part of revealing information in my third book. Just don’t use these as an opener. We need to know who your character is before we care about who they were. We want to know what’s happening to him in the present and what his current struggle is before we want to fall into his past or see his nightmares. Plus, come on. Starting with a dream or a flashback and then making your MC jolt awake, wide-eyed, heart-hammering, and sweating? Cliché alert.

Speaking of…

Clichés

You know this anyway. If you’re writing a novel, you’re committing to creativity. Don’t ignore your imagination and take something that’s been done and overdone. Once upon a time…It was a dark and stormy night…the whole dream thing…just don’t do it.

Conversations & Too Much Dialogue

I love dialogue. I love writing it, I love reading a witty exchange between characters and then rereading it because it was so clever, I love when a character says something vicious, cruel, underhanded, sarcastic, hilarious, etc. But I don’t love when your novel starts this way. If your novel begins with a page or two of fast-paced dialogue, I’m not going to care. I don’t know who these people are. They might be hilarious, sarcastic, or witty, but why do I care what they’re saying if I don’t even know who they are or how they know each other? It’s a personal preference, I suppose, but I like to establish my characters and their relationships and the inner narration before throwing them into heavy conversations. I want a chance to get to know the character before I read about his interactions with others. Maybe I’m just clingy like that.

Okay, presentation time.

I guess this is only fair. Here are the opening lines from my first three novels. Judge them how you wish. There’s nothing saying they have to stay this way. That’s what writing, editing, and critiques are all about.

1. Fourteen. That’s how many scars I find on my body. I remove the bandage from my cheek. It’s stained red from the cut, but at least the wound has closed up. I stare at the thin slit and wonder how noticeable the scar will be a week from now.

2. The glass breaks at my feet as my parents scream at each other.  I don’t know who threw it this time, only that I’m not sticking around to get caught in the crossfire.  I step around the sparkling shards and head outside, closing the door on their dysfunction.

3. I’d never held a real gun before.  It’s not like I was trained to use it or could hit all the right circles on those paper target dummies.  I didn’t know how to properly hold it, aim, or anything.  But none of this mattered in that moment.  You could have given me a spear, a slingshot, or just my bare f***ing hands and I would have found a way to make them deadly.  He needed to pay for what he did.  After all we went through, everything we’d seen, there wasn’t anything that could stop me from hurting him.  I raised the gun and cocked the hammer.

So there it is. Advice on writing first pages. Take it and do what you think is best. Just make sure you’re doing something. Write. “The hard part is getting to the top of page one,” remember?

What are your thoughts on first pages? What stops you from reading further? Do my opening lines work or fail? Post below!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “First Pages: Making Sure Your Novel’s Beginning Isn’t Its End

  1. Action is definitely a fun way to start, although it only really works if your story has lots of action. In Harry Potter, for example, it wouldn’t have really made sense to start with action — the only action Rowling could have started with would have been the Voldemort – Lily/James fight, and she restricted that to Harry’s dreams on purpose. But for a story with lots of action — A+ way to start!!

    • Great example there, Michelle. Every book is different, and there are always exceptions. It’s up to the writer to feel which beginning is best for their story. Perhaps I should add not to use one of these methods just for the sake of it, but to actually make sure it’s effective for your particular style and book. Thanks for your insight!

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