Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Gah, writing the first pages of your novel!

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paper bag

For me, where and how to begin my novels has pretty much always been the hardest part to get right. For ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST, I (no joke!!) wrote probably at least twenty different first chapters, the start points ranging from abus ride home from finals to a funeral to a plane landing in Dublin. And a few other places in between. So, yeah….

If your first chapter, first page, first paragraph, maybe even first line, can’t draw in readers, the rest of your book doesn’t matter. And there are so many jobs it has to get done, including establishing genre, introducing us to central characters (but not too many), showing us the world, and introducing the central conflict.

So, how can we make our first pages un-put-down-able? Here’s a few tips I learned based on my experience reading submissions for #WriteMentor.

  • Give us a sense of character and ordinary world. What is their life, their world, like before the inciting incident shatters everything and forces the main character to change course? We don’t necessarily need a ton of “ordinary world,” just a taste, so we can see what changes and get a sense of what’s at stake. For character, give us a sense of what their weakness is, what’s going to need to change, before they’re able to overcome whatever obstacles are thrown in their way by the antagonist causing or resulting from the inciting incident.
  • Voice. Ah, the mythical voice that everyone wants but can be so hard to create as a writer. When I think of voice, I think of the character’s world view. What is the lens they use to interpret events and interactions around them? This is created by past experiences. Ground us in the character and show us the character’s unique voice as early in page one as possible.
  • Activate our senses very early on. Page one. Ground us in the scene so we feel like we’re there with the main character. And when I say activate senses, I mean ALL of them: sight, sound, smell, taste, texture, light and shadow, temperature, humidity, etc. Gravel crunching under the MC’s sneakers. This can reveal stuff about both setting and character (what the character notices and how they react to that, how the clothes they’re wearing or their hair interacts with the world). The FEELING of emotions in the body: the rush of adrenaline, the sweat, the dead weight of exhaustion, the heart palpitations and butterflies of excitement. The more specific and unique to the character, the better. 
  • Avoid backstory. We don’t care about it unless we care about the character and until we do, we have nothing to attach that backstory to, so it’s kind of meaningless. It also slows down pacing and drains tension, which is critical on every page. Only give us tiny bits of what’s absolutely essential for us to know it that precise moment to understand what’s going on. You’d be surprised how little the reader really needs. Trust their intelligence. The rest can come out later.
  • But most importantly make us feel emotionally connected to the character. If we don’t care about the character, we don’t care what happens to them. What does the character want/need and why? What’s at stake and why should I care?
  • Get dialogue in there quickly! We want to hear the MC’s voice.
  • Leave us a sense of conflict, of mystery, of wondering. This creates tension and leaves us wanting to see how it resolves, especially if you’ve given us a reason to care about the character.
  • Then there’s the basics: show don’t tell and active voice. This also draws us in more as readers.
  • Another thing it took me a long time to learn: I don’t truly know where and how to begin until I know where and how it ends. Then I know for sure how the plot will play out, how the characters will evolve and change as they overcome those internal and external conflicts and achieve (or don’t achieve) their internal and external goals. Once I’ve written “the end,” I have a much better idea of how to start so the reader sees those whole arcs. how they need to start to truly capture those arcs.

So those are a few tips on first pages. And, absolutely yes, we need to be hyper-focused on our first pages, but those only get you in the door with readers. The rest of your novel needs to be just as good.

Here are few more resources:

How to Write the Perfect First Page

The First Page

Four Approaches to the First Chapter of Your Novel

25 Things to Know About Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel

Happy writing!

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