"So now get up" − writing a first page to captivate your reader
Your book sits on the table at Waterstones and a reader picks it up. Your manuscript lands in the inbox of a prospective agent or publisher. They open it to the first page. What captivates them? And most importantly, what makes them turn to page two?
Your first page is your most valuable piece of real estate. You invite the reader into your world and show them the language you will use to take them on the journey.
I’ve been a reader all my life, and I have worked editorially with scores of writers. I can tell you − and this is brutal – the reader will know before the bottom of the first page if the author can write.
Your reader wants to feel they’re in safe hands. Have you ever gone to see stand-up comedy or other live performance, and had a sense that the person wasn’t in control of the material or their audience? It’s excruciating. You feel embarrassed and you want to look away. It’s the same with a novel. So with that in mind, your first page must be impeccable. Let your reader see you know exactly what you are doing.
What does that mean?
no errors in grammar or punctuation
a clear indication of voice, tense and person, so the reader understands the “rules” of the book you’ve written
The bare white room
When your reader opens your book for the first time, they step into a bare white room. Yes, they may have some clues from the cover or blurb, or, if you’re at submission stage, from your covering letter, but it’s chapter one, page one where they begin their journey with you. What are you going to show them first?
Always assume that your reader:
Assumes everything is important
Wants you to show them where to look
Let’s look at a few examples of great first pages and see what we can learn from writers at the height of their powers.
Every brushstroke you paint counts
Let’s look at the opening paragraph of Sarah Winman’s exquisite novel, Still Life.
She’s been quite overt here in her direction: she tells us the exact location is not vital for us to know: ‘Somewhere in Tuscany’.
We know instantly that Evelyn Skinner is relevant (she’s named), and that ‘a Margaret someone’ is more incidental.
With few words, Winman gives us an indication of character: ‘two English spinsters’; ‘celebrated the Allied advance with large glasses of Chianti’; ‘Ours, they said, and waved.’
We know instantly that these women are steady, fearless and pragmatic. They enjoy the good things in life and will not allow themselves to be inconvenienced by something so petty as a plane dropping bombs.
This extract is just 100 words, but it’s packed with information about time, place and character. And there’s a dry, witty tone to the prose that gives us a clear indication of the voice of our third-person narrator.
Give us your protagonist
Here’s the devastating first paragraph of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is written in the close third person and in the present tense. We meet Thomas Cromwell, then aged fourteen, as his father beats him.
‘It was a switch into a fresh way of treating historical fiction, showing us characters living in the moment, attended to in the present tense, unaware of what the future holds for them. As a reader, one felt embedded somewhere in the back of Cromwell’s skull, alert to the brutal world of Tudor England, events unspooling before him while we looked on.’
We are deep inside Cromwell as he experiences this beating – seeing the details he sees, smelling, tasting and feeling with him.
Give us a sense of voice
Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer-Prizewinning Demon Copperhead is a retelling of David Copperfield, set in West Virginia in the 1990s. You may well be familiar with the opening of ‘Copperfield’:
‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.’
Kingsolver begins her version similarly, but immediately subverts our expectations with a unique and pungent voice. If you’ve gone in expecting Dickens, you’re in for a surprise.
We instantly have a sense of Demon Copperhead. He speaks in his own vernacular, and we get his view on his world, and the characters that inhabit it.
Some questions to ask yourself
How do you apply these principles on your own first page? When you go to edit the opening of your book, what should it contain?
Have I started my story at the most compelling moment?
Have I drawn the reader in with a powerful opening image?
Is the action moving on immediately?
Has every word and every phrase earned its place on the page?
Is my point of view evident? Whose eyes are we seeing through?
Have I posed an urgent question the reader will need to know the answer to?
Some pitfalls to avoid
Have I confused with misdirection? For example, have I started with a minor character or with something not central to the story?
Have I used too many characters’ names right at the beginning? Readers cannot absorb too many as they are building the world in their heads
Have I posed too many questions right at the beginning and left the reader lost?
Have I chosen a shocking or gimmicky opening line that does not serve the story?
Let your reader know they're in safe hands. Edit, edit, edit ─ as I said at the start, your tense, person and voice should be impeccable, and every word must be doing a job. Good luck!