The first page of a novel is likely the hardest you'll write. With the massive tasks of hooking the reader, introducing the main character, stakes and setting, creating an emotional connection with the reader AND setting up the story to follow, getting your first page right is absolutely vital.
Here are three page one mistakes you might make in your novel, and what to do instead!
1. Cliche or Mundane First Line
The first sentence of your story is your hook. If a reader is flipping through your book in a shop, deciding whether they think they'll buy it or not, this first line tells them whether it's going to be a yes or no. The hook has to make your reader immediately want to keep reading.
If your first line is something mundane, such as 'she woke up', 'he sat down in his chair', or 'they got in the car to go to work', you've lost your chance to engage the reader. If your hook is commonly used or a cliche, you're telling your reader that your work isn't going to be very creative, and that you don't have a strong narrative voice.
And that's exactly what we want to do here: establish the voice and make that vital emotional connection to keep the reader reading. A first line such as 'she punched him in the face' or 'I just got fired' is a lot more engaging than the examples above!
However, it doesn't have to be so intense. Any kind of action that is suggestive of the plot, world or character, or a line that otherwise intrigues the reader, is going to be a stronger hook for your story. Your hook should create an emotional reaction in your reader, whether that's by making them empathise with the main character, leaving them on a cliff-hanger, or creating exciting action.
Info-dumping is the term used when writers give paragraphs of 'information', telling the reader something in an almost textbook or essay-like format, rather than weaving explanations into action.
As we've already discussed, your first page is where you must place a strong hook and create an emotional connection with the reader. The first page is NOT the place to explain to the reader the history of the world, the backstory of a character, the way the setting looks (in great detail), or anything else that isn't immediately exciting or emotional for the reader to devour.
To establish an emotional connection with the main character, tell the reader just a little bit about them. It doesn't have to be anything big or obvious, but it does have to be short and fast. Maybe you're just showing they're witty through a line of dialogue, that they're depressed after losing a loved one through the way they see the world, or a quality like their intelligence or strength through action.
The second thing to do is establish the stakes and give the reader a hint as to what might happen in the story. Make sure you're creating questions. Get the reader excited about what's to come! Start hinting at things the reader will be intrigued by that will come up later, or include small cliffhangers.
If you reveal too much or too little in the first pages, you're not making your reader excited to read on. While you want to establish what kind of person your main character is, what the stakes are, and what the book might be dealing with, you don't want to tell the reader all the secrets.
Let the reader discover things as they go, and don't underestimate them. Readers are often smarter than you think, and don't need or want to be told everything explicitly. Allow them to fill in the gaps on their own, and keep them guessing!
3. Starting too Early in the Story
Many authors make the mistake of starting chapter one too early in the character's timeline or day - often with the dreaded 'waking up' cliche - rather than starting the story during engaging action.
Unless the character's morning routine or backstory is very important to the story, or tells the reader a lot about the character, DO NOT START THERE.
Instead, drop the reader into an action scene during which something vital to the story is occurring. This is often the inciting incident, although some authors like to start with a bit of setting up to establish the character's current circumstances before their big shakeup.
Regardless of where in the story you start, make sure page one includes a plot point that hooks the reader. The beginning of an average day, especially in detail, just won't be interesting.
Also consider the plot of your book. Especially for pantsers, it's easy to start too early because you may not fully know where your book is going in the first draft. Writers often don't realise that what they're starting with is backstory, and not the interesting and engaging plot that readers want. Typically, telling the 'before' in a flashback or explaining it in another exciting way is better than starting too early in the timeline, before anything interesting is happening.
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