Tools to Make Your First Pages Stronger

Old Antique Tools in Vintage Carpentry WorkshopThere’s nothing more boring (to me) than a manuscript that starts off with nothing happening. Or starts off with the main character staring at themselves in the mirror (and hating their eyes or fixing their unruly hair or noticing their cheekbones are like their dead mother’s). Or begins with the main character waking up and looking around their surroundings (and describing them in detail, as if they’ve never seen it before, or love it so much, or hate it so much). Actually, can we just agree that manuscripts shouldn’t start at all with a character waking up? Start with something happening!

In the first pages of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight, the main character Rafe is being dropped off at his “new home.” His dad is trying to take a picture of him with his iPhone and he tells Rafe to do some silly things for the camera and Rafe is making fun of that (to us). It’s not like a volcano has erupted, but there’s some action. In the first pages of Damien Walters Grintalis’ Ink, the strange man who is “being William” walks with a bizarre gait down a street in Baltimore and goes into a nondescript shop, while singing a song. Again, it’s not a car crash or a murder, but something is happening. And both of these first pages also set up some questions. In Openly Straight we want to find out where they are, why’s his dad dropping him off… In Ink, we want to find out what it exactly means that this guy is, “being William,” as well as find out why “he was ash and cinder, pain and sorrow, and always clever.” Good golly, what does that mean?! I don’t know about you, but I want to find out.

In those first pages you need your readers to engage with your characters in a particular way. You need to make your readers care. In Openly Straight we start to care about what’s going to happen right away when we learn that Rafe’s an out, gay kid who lives in Boulder and didn’t get picked on or anything, but when he looks in the mirror all he sees is “GAY GAY GAY RAFE GAY GAY GAY” (which takes up about half of page 3 BTW) and Rafe wants a do-over. He wants to go to a school where nobody knows anything about him and he’s gone ahead and moved across the country to do that. Hmmmm… this is one. nice. setup. I mean, we know shit’s going to happen at the school! And we’re only on page 3, and the voice is funny and a little sarcastic, yet kind of sweet. So, BAM! Engaged.

In Ink, after meeting that strange man in a one page chapter 1, we jump to chapter 2 where we meet Jason, who’s piss drunk at a bar after his wife has left him. She’s apparently a real bitch (Jason’s word, not mine) and Jason is clearly suffering from some post-traumatic-relationship low self esteem issues. And then that strange man walks into the bar (well, he kind of rolls in, remember he’s got that weird way of walking… why is that?!). Jason dubs him Sailor, as he kind of looks like one, and his arms are covered in tattoos. They have a pleasant enough conversation, although there are hints that something is not quite right. “A cold finger of dread traced its way down Jason’s spine,” when Sailor moves his seat next to Jason’s. Ok, I don’t know about you, but I feel kind of sorry for poor Jason, who’s such a shlub, and I definitely want to know what the deal is with this Sailor. BAM! Engaged.

So, it’s not that you have to have your reader rooting for your character necessarily, but you want your reader to care about finding out what’s going to happen next, and care about the character. What’s going to happen to Rafe at his new school? Is he really not going to tell anyone he’s gay? What’s going to happen to Jason tomorrow, when he wakes up with a massive hangover? Will he still be hating on his ex wife? And is Jason going to take Sailor up on his offer, and go and get a tattoo? And if he does, then what’s going to happen? Because clearly Sailor is bad news.

So I’ve given you two things you should do: start with action and make your readers care about your characters. Here’s something you should not do: information dumping and backstory exposition. Nothing makes my eyes roll more quickly than when I’m reading a manuscript that starts off with a bunch of information about a character whom I hardly know or care about yet, or gives me all the whys and wherefores explaining their situation or personality. Leave off all that nonsense. Weave your backstory and explanations into the weft and warp of your story. Info dumping is boring. Backstory is telling, telling, telling when you should be focused on showing your story. And let me assure you, those things do not belong in your first pages, no matter what you may think.

First pages need to grab your reader, whether that reader is a literary agent to whom you’re querying, an editor to whom your agent is submitting, or someone choosing your book off the shelf in the bookstore. Any questions?

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Tools to Make Your First Pages Stronger

  1. Carol Bryant

    Hmmmm. There is lots of action in my first chapter but I don’t think the reader would begin to care about the main character (me) until the second chapter. Hmmmm. Something to think about.

  2. Kate Lynch

    You are so right about action. It seems if I go to pg. 3 where my action starts, then that’s where my first page should be. Yeah.

  3. Agree, agree, agree but how is it that a ‘celebrated’ book like Goldfinch didn’t do the ‘suck in’ for me during the first few pages. I pushed past the slow beginning so I could find out what makes this book so great. Must say that the story became exponentially better after first chapter.

    • Dunno. You tell me! I guess there are exceptions to every rule, but you seriously increase your chances of an agent or editor (or their interns) continuing to read past your first few pages if you make them strong & engaging.

  4. Charlene Ball

    How soon can I put in a flashback?

    • After we know & care about your characters enough that it doesn’t feel like an info dump or (the dreaded) prologue. And you need a really good reason to be flashing back, otherwise it’s just that.

  5. Thanks for this post, Linda! your insights into opening pages immediately made me think of one of my favorite books–Wendy Mass’s “Every Soul a Star,” which has three different Chapter 1s. Each Chapter 1 is told from a different kid’s perspective (Ally, Bree, or Jack), and even if the beginnings were from three different books, I’d want to read all three of them. Each Chapter 1 has a unique voice, does a great job of raising questions in the reader’s mind, and also makes the reader care about the character. Thanks again for your post.

  6. Kate Lynch

    The first page has been my biggest challenge. Thank you for this.
    My question is: is it considered an info dump to state in the first paragraph exactly what happened to propel this character into his/her situation?
    For example: “I feel like I’ve had a bad virus since mom died.”

    Kate

  7. R.L. Saunders

    Totally. It’s hard to strike the right balance in the first pages. And it’s definitely not as simple as starting with a high action turning point in a character’s life.