Writing a Killer First Page

 

Nothing brings a writer more agony than writing the first page of their novel. There are plenty of articles listing what not to do on the first page, but what writers really need is a list of “dos”

What a first page must do

1. Start the story

This might seem like a facepalm piece of advice, but I’ve seen enough manuscripts to know that too many writers do not start their stories on the first page. They use it to world-build, or describe their characters, or backstory dump, pretty much anything except get the plot rolling.

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 struggles 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.

2. Introduce the world/setting

Wait, didn’t you just say not to?
Introducing the setting does not mean sitting at a table describing it. It means showing your characters interacting with the setting and showing how the setting affects your characters.

For example,

The pantry was empty. It looked full, but there was nothing in those boxes. A couple of noodles, a bit of cereal, not enough to make a meal so no one ate them, but no one would throw them out either. So they just sat there day after day turning into dust. Like everything else in this house. Grandma’s flower couch, my uncle’s recliner, that still reeked of cigarettes, the wobbly table mom picked up in a thrift shop.

It’s a good description, but it doesn’t move the story forward. Instead, show the setting’s effect on the character.

The pantry was empty. It looked full, but there was nothing in those boxes. A couple of noodles, a bit of cereal, not enough to make a meal so no one ate them, but no one would throw them out either.
My stomach growled. For some reason, it’s the only thing around here that never learned to give up. Maybe I can get a dollar out of Mom’s purse. She’s always got a few stashed back for cigarettes.

In the second example, we aren’t just told about her poverty, we see its effect on the character. Now the setting provides motivation for action, propelling the story forward.

3. Hook the reader

Hooking the reader is nothing more than raising a question. There must be something on the first page that propels the reader to learn more.

Hooks can come in several forms.

  1. An interesting world/premise- This is difficult to accomplish, make sure you have something truly unique. Pride, and Prejudice, and Zombies is a good example.
  2. A compelling mystery- Mysteries, thrillers, cop procedurals, and sometimes horror novels use this hook.
  3. Emotional hook- A powerful emotional connection formed between the character and the reader.
  4. Conflict*

Conflict gets a star because it will be present in all the other hooks.

There’s some debate about whether the conflict must begin on page 1 or even line 1. I’ve heard both, and there are plenty of examples where either is true.

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?

No.

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 1fist-page

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:

Relatable

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.

Immediate

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.

Compelling

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

Or

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.

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. Writing a compelling first page can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. By following these steps, you can create an opening that will draw your reader into the story, and guarantee they will turn the page.

Further reading: (Not affiliate, I genuinely recommend these books.)

Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox

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Don’t leave your readers wondering, “Why are we here?”

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2

Use scene goals to keep your chapters off the chopping block

As an editor, I’ve seen first chapters that try to create an entire world, spill a character’s life story, introduce an entire cast complete with grocery list description, or rant about a social/political issue. What they seem to almost never do is start the story. A character sitting in a coffee shop thinking thoughts is not a plot. (yes, it’s almost always a coffee shop) You need scene goals.

Scene goals give your characters a reason to exist

Question 1: What does he/she want/need?

A character must want something at the beginning of the scene.

But wait? It’s the beginning of the story, she doesn’t have a problem yet.

Unless she sprung up wholly formed from the ground right before page one, we can assume your character already has a life, and every life has problems. If you don’t know what these problems are, then you need to work on your character’s backstory. Let’s consider our friend at the coffee shop. Rather than describe the setting around her, we need to give her a goal: her desire to eat her danish in peace.

What stands in his/her way?

This is the conflict. Stories must start with a conflict, right on page one, preferably in the first paragraph. This does not have to be the main conflict. It can also be implied.

For example, in the novel Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, her opening line. “I’ve read many more books than you,” only hints at the main conflict, but it’s there. Yoon knows many people who will read her book will likely be avid readers, it sets up a conflict between the MC and the reader.

The statement makes a challenge, and just like on the playground, the reader’s initial instinct would be to say, “No way.” It also challenges the reader to investigate further to see if this statement is actually true.

Let’s move back to our coffee shop example. Something needs to prevent our heroine from enjoying that danish in peace.

The chatty best friend with some kind of man trouble? (yawn) Dig a little deeper.
Are the Avengers fighting outside? (better)

How do we reveal that conflict?

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Since the juxtaposition is pretty extreme, this sets a comedic tone. She could be pausing during her conversation to accommodate explosions, or struggling to spread the butter when the table shakes from the giant robot clomping down the street. Keep the focus on how the circumstances are affecting your main character, and how the main character is working to overcome that obstacle.

Now add emotion

How is the conflict affecting the character’s emotions? Is she annoyed by the Avengers? How do these emotions motivate her to react and respond? What do they drive your character to do? This is the beginning of your character arc. How a character responds to a motivation is the basis of their character. Emotion is the first reaction to any motivation. Make sure you do not ignore this essential element.

Where are we going?

Once you have a solid scene, complete with character motivation and conflict, we need to know how this scene relates to the overall plot. In other words, how does this scene get your character to their ultimate goal? For this, you need to have an outline, plot board, or even a summary of plot points. For discovery writers, this can be done after the first draft is finished.

Planning your scene- a template

What does this scene need to accomplish?

Beginning: What does my character want/need at the beginning of this scene?

Key elements

  1. Motivation: character’s need
  2. Conflict: what stands in the way?
  3. Stakes: what will happen if the character fails?

Body: Show character working toward this goal and struggling against the obstacle. Make sure the MC’s actions are consistent with her character arc.

Results: What changes? Possible outcomes:

Possible outcomes: Is the conflict resolved, or unresolved?

If the conflict is resolved, propel the reader forward by increasing tension.

Increase tension in a resolved conflict:

  1. Are new conflicts introduced? If so, how?
  2. Did solution create more problems? If so how?

If the conflict is unresolved, raise the stakes by adding complicating factors

  1. Has the situation gotten worse? If so how?
  2. Have the consequences gotten worse? If so how?

This will force your MC to regroup and formulate a new plan.

Dark moment/new question

The secret to getting readers to turn the page is ending your chapters with a compelling question or an “Oh crap!” reveal. This does not mean every chapter should end on a cliff hanger. (You will annoy your readers.)

If the scene’s purpose is formulating the plan, leave the reader with a sense of tension about the upcoming mission. If your scene’s purpose if increasing the stakes, drop the critical information close to the end of the scene.

In these scenarios, the reader will be asking, “What will happen next?” This will help propel your reader into the next chapter.

Make a plan for your scene, or your scene will fail

Planning your scenes with specific goals will help ensure each scene is an effective part of your story. Scene goals will give your characters a purpose and keep your story from wandering. They will increase tension, raise the stakes, and propel your readers to the very last page.

To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join, click here.

Opening Lines: Indie Tidbits Podcast

A rare bonus post to announce I was interviewed on the Indie Tidbits Podcast by Dawn Husted. You can listen to me talk about opening lines and cliche’ beginnings.

 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1220229563

Most of the information came straight from the post Engaging Readers from the First Sentence, so you can scan that and literally listen to me read off the page. (Because I don’t trust myself to go off script.)

Enjoy