You’ve probably read a million times that the first line or page of a book is the most important and most difficult part of the book to write. It is true that the first page of a book can make or break it for the reader; it can mean the difference between them turning the page or putting the book back on the shelf.
I’m always hesitant about saying there are rules you should follow when it comes to writing your novel. Having said that, you do need to take the time to get the first page right. You might do this after you’ve written the whole of the first draft and are ready to go back to the beginning and redraft. On the other hand, you may find it helps to plan your first scene before you start writing. Whichever way you do it, there are certain things to keep in mind that can help you write a gripping first page; these are some of the things I look for when I’m assessing a young adult (YA) manuscript.
A strong start
I want to be drawn in from the first line – I want to feel like I have to read on to find out what happens next. Make it original, too; give the reader something they won’t be expecting. I also like to be able to see a distinctive voice that’s apparent from that first page.
Making your first line dialogue can be difficult to pull off. It can slow the pace of the beginning, and the reader doesn’t yet know anything about the character speaking, so they have no context for what has been said. However, don’t let your narrative go on for too long without introducing some dialogue, as that can get boring. And I’d rather not see too much background information or backstory on the first page – it’s not gripping enough.
Your main protagonist
I want to be introduced to your main character in some way, so I can start getting to know them straight away. Readers should learn something important about the character as early as possible, something about their personality or identity, something about what’s important to them. What is motivating them?
You can also show the reader the world of the character. Place your character or characters somewhere: where they are, what season, what time, and so on. Don’t go into too much detail, however, as going overboard on the setting on the first page will slow down the narrative. Beginning the first page with the setting could slow down the pace too, so be careful about introducing it too soon.
I’d like a hint about the main point of the plot, or the premise of the story. Give the reader some idea of what the book is going to be about. This doesn’t mean spelling everything out for them – there would be no reason for them to read on, and obviously there’s no room to do that on the first page anyway – so be subtle.
There should be some kind of tension or hint of a problem. You could start with something important that is just about to happen, or some problem that the main character needs to resolve, as a way of creating that tension. The character could go through some sort of change, or a situation may change on the first page. Whatever happens, the reader must care about how the character is going to deal with this situation.
You can start with putting the reader into the middle of the action that’s already happening, but if you do, give the reader an emotional connection to what’s happening; make them care about what’s happening. The reader needs to have some context for whatever action is taking place, or the action won’t grab them, as they won’t understand what is going on.
Examples of first pages done well
Look at the first pages of books that you love and study what the author did. What did he or she do to pull you in? At what point in the story did they start? In the three following examples, you can see how the author introduces the main character, the premise of the story and a conflict.
On the first page of Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell (my favourite YA of the year), we learn of Park’s longing for Eleanor, we know she’s gone, and we know Park has given up on getting her back. We recognise that a lot has happened to bring Park to this circumstance, and we want to know what could have happened for them to find themselves in this situation.
The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn drops us into an action scene, with a stranger holding a gun to the main protagonist’s head – we immediately wonder what’s going on, but the author provides context for what’s happening. The character thinks of his mother and his brother while the gun is to his head, which makes us care about the main character.
In David Levithan’s Every Day, we find the protagonist waking up in a strange body; we learn that this happens every day, and that he must find out whose body he is in. This is an original, intriguing premise.
Make a start
All of this may seem daunting, and you may be wondering how on earth you can possibly fit all of this on the first page. But it’s certainly doable – the three examples above show it can be done. Take your time and choose your words carefully. It’s worth getting that first page right, to entice the reader to give your novel a chance.
Have you heard of Freshly Squeezed? It's an online community for YA writers, and registrations have just closed for their first competition – the P1 Blitz – where you can have the first page of your manuscript critiqued by people in the industry (I'm one of the judges!). Keep an eye on their website for future competitions.