FIRST PAGE = FIRST IMPRESSION
THE PROMISE OF A PREMISE
WHAT IS A “FIRST PAGE” ANYWAY?
It is your one chance to make a great first impression. From the crucial first sentence to the critical end of the first page, you must be all about hooking your reader and reeling them in.
Do you like to window shop? Walk up to the big window in your favorite department store and peek inside? Survey the layout? The new designs and fashions? What can you see? Not very much of the whole store. Just a taste, a tease. But if the designer has done their job right, it’s enough to make you walk inside and check things out.
What about the windows of one of the houses on your street? Close your eyes and imagine it for a moment. What could we see if we took that voyeuristic leap and peered inside one of the windows? The table settings in the dining room? The clothes scattered across the bed in the bedroom? The flickering TV in the den? Would that tell us much about the lives of the people living there? Let’s take that dining room table – let’s add the dinner – Thanksgiving turkey & the trimmings. A woven horn of plenty filled with fruit. Autumn decorated placemats with the red, yellow and orange leaves and flowers. We would begin to get a sense of CONTEXT. Maybe even a hint of CONCEPT. We continue to watch as mother and father walk into the room and sit down at the table. Are they the most important characters in your picture? Children begin to trickle in, laughing, shoving, one with a smartphone in hand, texting. Then the grandparents amble in. When everyone is finally seated, the mother reaches over to remove the phone from the hand of the teen, who scowls in opposition. The family bows their head in prayer and then father stands up to carve the turkey. We may begin to get a sense of a main CHARACTER as we observe their interactions. Suddenly the teen and a younger child begin to exchange glances, then words and a fight breaks out. The teen jumps up, overturning the table and we have CONFLICT.
Your first page is like the window dressing for your story. It tells the reader that something significant is going to happen. The characters are intriguing. The stakes are high – the events are crucial, the tension is elevated. There’s about to be a change in the status quo. You are making a promise to deliver the goods on that premise. Premise = Promise
WHY IS IT SUCH A “BIG DEAL”?
Your “First Page” is one of the most important elements of your story. Not just for your fans – but for agents and editors. They FOCUS on your FIRST PAGE.
One reason is because agents & editors are overwhelmed and swamped with submissions. The have piles & piles of slush. Rushed and anxious to make deadlines, they are also hard pressed to stake their claims on the next best seller. They are reading on the subway. In the supermarket line. In the john. On their smartphones, kindles, & tablets. Their eyes are burning. They are tired. Hungry. Irritated. Bored. Disinterested. Distracted. They have heard it before. Rhymes that don’t rhyme. Vampires & wolves. Mass destruction and zombies. Once upon a time fractures.
And often they are quickly turned off by first pages flooded with fancy, contrived, forced metaphors and smiles. Clichés. Idioms. Too much action. Too little action. Too quick. Too slow.
They want to know if you are writing about toilet paper rolls, jungles, or flying saucers. Love. Hate. Death. Romance. They are skimming through your words faster than a hypersonic warplane to see if you have a style, a voice, and a plot. They can’t figure out what your story is about. They are searching for a conflict, a main character, a concept, a context – all on the first page. Yep, its true – they are.
By the end of the first line they are sizing you up. They don’t know who you are. And they want to know if you are at all competent to call yourself a writer.
And by the end of the first page – your baby may have already been thrown onto the “Rejected-not-right-for-our-list pile.”
SO HOW DO YOU WRITE AN EXCEPTIONAL FIRST PAGE?
You must start strong and grab readers from the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page.
Your first page will begin to establish your narrative voice as reliable, believable, talented, and authoritative as you weave the essential elements of your story.
Therefore, you must create an overwhelming curiosity about what is going to happen in the story & pose a question that has to be answered. Know what your character wants, and set that quest into motion.
Remember: A story is about a character wanting something intensely but there is an impediment to his or her goal.
Your story is the character and the conflict.
Since the essential idea is to entice your reader, your most important element is your narrative hook. So you should start your book with the best, carefully chosen words to hook your reader and reel them in immediately. Don’t bury your hook. A novel should go “inside-out”. Shock/awe/seduce/trick/ your reader with your first few paragraphs – your first lines – and then build the story around that, going back through flashback, dialogue, some exposition to finish the painting when necessary. Too many writers want to build the set, paint the walls, and place the furniture before they ever introduce the character, conflict, circumstance, or concept.
A good narrative hook uses the old familiar 5 W’s:
1-Who is the character?
2-What is the conflict?
4-When is the context?
5-Why this concept?
6-How did it happen (context – what is the background)?
THE FOUR MAIN INGREDIENTS:
Character = care (about) Reveal the “Core of Your Character” in an intriguing way that reflects a vital aspect of his or her identity. Show the reader why it’s worth rooting for that character by establishing a goal or desire in the opening scene that highlights their personality and motivation.
Conflict = central crisis (create dramatic tension) Set up question your novel is answering (that will be answered by the last page). Remember that without tension, there is no story. You must have sufficient action and momentum with a catalyst or incident. Your opening scene should start off with a bang, with your protagonist in the middle of something that we sense has been going on for a while. Insinuate a conflict, a problem, some tense situation. Let you reader know what’s at stake
Context = circumstance (time & place) Orient and ground your reader with a sense of where we are. Create a unique, unexpected, extraordinary setting. Describe an especially interesting and fascinating setting. It can also be a familiar setting with a unique &/or surprising circumstance. Integrate your setting into the action
Concept = core (of your story) Focus in on an intense and important moment. Include the gravity and significance of something that is about to happen. There should be an undeniable force compelling the reader to want more.
Raise your story questions on the first page with a hook that makes your reader curious. (Story questions need not be in question form, but can be statements that require further explanation, problems that require resolution, forecasts of crisis, etc.) The question must not only get the reader involved in the story, it should be justified by the story that follows.
Some examples of types of hooks are:
1-Hook (compressed) of compelling events – primary ingredient is action
2-Hook of unusual characters – involve the reader with an interesting personality
3-Hook of setting or atmosphere – opening image sets scene & mood
4-Hook of striking language – juxtaposition of words – a poetic interest in words & says something in a new, fresh & original way
5-Hook of ideas – writer involves reader through philosophical concepts – “true memory”, the reader is caught by the philosophic observations that the writer poses – give specific example – caution: the novel of ideas is still fiction & not philosophy – the protagonist is a searcher for a particular truth & he moves through certain events to reveal this truth
6-Hook of striking technical devices – an unconventional approach to writing – experimentation in literary technique – form & theme
Readers want a first paragraph that draws them into a world that already exists, not one that will be created as they go along. They want to find themselves in the midst of people who are involved in the life of that world, people they immediately want to know more about. So your first page should also give the reader an idea of:
Content of text
It’s not an easy task –saying all of the above in approximately 250 words. But it is a great first page that makes a great first impression!
WHAT YOUR FIRST PAGE SHOULD DO:
CHARACTER – Who?
Who is the character we care most about (will root for)?
Have you introduced your protagonist (are they POV character)?
What does s/he want and/or desire intensely (plot goal)?
CONFLICT – What?
What is the conflict (situation/problem)?
Have you included (mentioned/hinted at) your inciting incident?
CONTEXT – Where and When?
Where does your story take place (locale)?
When does your story take place (time period)?
CONCEPT – Why and How?
What’s your hook?
Will it grab your reader?
Why did this happen?
How did this happen (background)?
Have you presented a unique twist or fresh spin?
Have you generated a crushing curiosity about what is going to happen in your story?
Have you posed a question that has to be answered?