These common mistakes will ruin your first page
The first page is the most important page in your novel. It is the first impression a reader (and therefore an agent/editor) will get. A potential reader will judge your entire book based on the content in these few paragraphs. Getting it wrong could mean no one will ever read your book. No matter how many opening pages I read, many fail because they contain the same common mistakes. Don’t let these mistakes ruin your opening page.
Mistake 1. Doesn’t start the story.
This may seem like an idiotic statement, but I’ve seen it too often to ignore it. Too many writers use their opening pages to do everything but get the plot started. Make sure your character has a goal and a plan to achieve that goal right on page 1.
How do we start the story?
Identify your story’s inciting incident. (Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place.) Now work backward. Map out the specific list of events that leads your character to that moment. In this case, we see Katniss in her daily struggle to feed her family. The entire purpose of the exposition is to show how Katniss feels responsible for Prim, and she is willing to risk her life for her sister.
How far back should I go?
Only go back as far as the reader needs to understand the inciting incident. For some stories that might only be a few minutes. In the case of the Hunger Games, Collins only went back to the morning of the Reaping. Why? Because this was the only day that was different. Going back further wouldn’t add anything to the story.
Mistake 2. No conflict
Many writers fall into this trap because most novels begin before the main character’s world falls apart. This is called establishing normal. But just because the explosions haven’t started yet doesn’t mean that everything in the character’s world is perfect. Find a conflict for the character in their normal life and use that to show characterization. Characters must have a problem on page 1.
Before I elaborate on this question, I need to distinguish between conflict (a problem a character faces in a story) and Conflict (the main obstacle in a novel.)
Does the story’s main Conflict need to appear on page 1?
There can be hints. It can be in the background or foreshadowed. All these are fine, but it is not necessary to have the story’s main Conflict appear on page 1. While some stories can begin this way, there are plenty of novels where tripping over the villain on the first page simply wouldn’t work.
Rules for conflict on page 1
Yes! There must be a conflict on page 1. Some people will say from the opening line, but I give writers till the end of the first paragraph, (assuming the first three sentences work together as a whole.)
This conflict must be:
- Part of the character’s journey
Your readers must be able to understand the problem without any explanation. If you’re not sure, consult Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. No matter what your setting is, people will understand conflicts from this list: hunger, shelter, safety, group identity, etc. If a reader can’t understand a conflict, she cannot empathize with the character.
The conflict must be right in front of the character. Your character can’t be sitting in a coffee shop thinking about her problem. It needs to be right there in the same room with her. She needs to be actively struggling against it. If you find your character sitting and thinking about the problem that happened last week, switch to that scene and show that event.
Writing a compelling conflict is nothing more than presenting the first two points in an interesting way. If you’ve succeeded in the first two points, the reader will naturally want to know if the character overcomes the obstacle. Even the most mundane conflicts can become interesting if the character is sympathetic. We make the character sympathetic by showing the character struggle.
Now improve the conflict by adding the consequences of failure.
All conflicts must have stakes (consequences for failure). Pay attention to the balance between the two. Stakes that are too extreme or not strong enough are not compelling. Again, make sure the stakes are clear and relatable to the audience.
Part of the character’s journey
Whatever the conflict is on the first page, it must be the first stepping stone on the character’s journey. The consequences of whatever choices the character makes on the first page need to lead into the next conflict.
This is called “Yes, but or no, and” style plotting. If you use another plotting method, you can use this as a test to make sure all your elements tie together.
How it works:
At the end of a scene (or scene/sequel unit) ask: Was the conflict solved?
Answer the question:
Yes, but…The solution caused another problem
No, and…this is how things got worse.
Using this simple device will help you make sure your conflict chain remains unbroken through the entire novel.
Mistake 3. The main character does nothing
She’s sitting in a coffee shop, her room, class, kitchen table (doesn’t matter) thinking about something/someone else. Characters who do nothing on the first page rarely engage readers. This goes back to conflict. If everyone else in your character’s life is talking about their problems and what they plan to do about them, then maybe the scene isn’t really about your main character?
Use the multiple-POV checklist to make sure your viewpoint character has agency or has the highest stakes.
- who has the most at stake?
- who has the most ability to affect change (agency) in the scene?
- whose experience has the most emotional impact?
The answer to these three questions may not be the same character, so choose the one which will create the most impact on the reader. If you find a secondary character eclipsing your main character, you will need to do some rewriting to raise the main character’s personal stakes in the scene.
If the main character doesn’t pass this test, then the opening scene does not start her story. Either you are starting the story in the wrong place, or another character should be your main character.
But what if the secondary character’s actions are the cause for the main character’s story?
Main characters who lack agency in the opening scenes can be difficult. In this instance, keep the focus on the emotional impact the events are having on your main character and how these events affect the main character. Create a sense of doom in him, or a rising sense of duty, or an everlasting shame that he stood by and watched, for example. Often in first drafts, writers will simply have the main character watch the scene unfold without participating, leaving the reader with a “watching TV experience” rather than a fully immersive one. While an eaves-dropping scene may be impossible to eliminate in a single POV book, having one on the first page will confuse and create distance for the reader. Keep the main character in the middle of the action.
Mistake 4. Info dump
The first page is not the place to describe your complex social, magical, or political system. Cut all info-dumping from your first page. If the scene makes sense without it, you don’t need it. If it doesn’t make sense, add back only the information the reader needs.
Make it better by having the characters use the information, rather than explaining it.
I rechecked the power crystals in my disruptor gun, not that I could hear their soft humming over the transport’s quad engines.
Mistake 5. Setting dump
Just as with the info dump, the setting dump also needs to be avoided. A short exposition is plenty to ground your readers in a setting. There’s no need to describe the entire coffee shop and all its inhabitants. Continue to build setting through the scene by having the characters interact with that setting.
Mistake 6. Backstory dump
No backstory on page one. Can you hint at it? sure. Show its effects on your character? absolutely. Can you spell it all out in two paragraphs? No.
Not only is that boring to a reader who is not yet invested in a character, it also ruins any intrigue by answering all the potential questions raised by the character’s actions.
One of the most important aspects of hooking readers is posing questions. If you give readers all the answers, there is no reason for them to continue. Don’t show your hand. Just like you wouldn’t spill your deepest, darkest life secrets to someone you just met, don’t show the reader all your character’s ugly places. Give the reader a chance to make a connection over a more relatable conflict, and then once the reader is invested she will want to know all your characters secrets.
Mistake 7. Too many characters
The first page is not the place to introduce your entire cast. It is also not the place for a character to think at length about people who are not in the room him.
If I’m late again Mr. Miller is gonna put me in detention for the rest of my life.
Here mentioning Mr. Miller is fine since the character is relevant to the MC’s current conflict, and there’s no additional information given. From the context, we learn enough about Mr. Miller (he’s the homeroom teacher) to understand his importance. This example keeps the focus on the main character and his current conflict.
If I’m late again, I’m screwed. Mr. Miller used to be cool, but ever since he lost his wife last year he’s been the worst teacher at Los Cabos high. The man needs some serious therapy, but instead, he just focuses his rage on making us miserable. He’s probably gonna put me in detention for the rest of my life.
The second example is less effective. Because we don’t have a connection with Mr. Miller, his personal tragedy doesn’t interest us. It also takes the focus away from our main character, which is a problem on the opening page when the reader is looking to engage.
Save Mr. Miller’s backstory for another part of the novel where it will have more impact.
The first page is the most important page in your story
The first page is the introduction to your entire novel. It is the gateway that will either hook a reader or turn them away. By avoiding these common mistakes, you can create an effective opening that will draw readers in and get them to turn the page.