I won’t lie; first pages are hard. Like HARD-hard. So much weight is placed upon their importance…wondering whether yours is working or not…it’s extremely frustrating. I’ve learned a lot about first pages over the past few years, more so recently with my internship that I thought I’d share some common problems I’ve seen arise in first pages and why they don’t work.
- Over-explanation/too much detail: The color of your characters’ eyes or the way trees shadow the road are NOT details that will grab your readers’ attention. Readers don’t care about the bitter smell of coffee or the zigzag pattern of raindrops on the window. They want to know Who is this person? and Why should I care about them? Your first few pages are crucial in getting that information to readers as quickly as possible; not a place for general details. Part of the intrigue of a first page is discovering what’s special about this time, how this particular moment is unique for your character. Did he just discover a dead body? Did a car almost hit her and she recognizes the person behind the wheel? It’s unlikely the shade of blue the sky is will be relevant to such events. Keep the filler out of the start and really focus on which distinctive particulars will enhance this critical moment and move as quickly as possible to the heart of the story.
- No evidence of overarching high concept: An example may work best to describe this one. Let’s look at the first page of The Fault in Our Stars (Green):
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.
Only the second paragraph in and we already know what the story’s going to be about. But doesn’t that ruin the mystery and suspense of figuring out where the story will go? No. Absolutely not. You’re not spewing the entire plot up front. You’re merely grounding your readers. Giving them a sense of where this story might be headed. Notice I said might. By reading the first two paragraphs of TFIOS, do you know how it’s going to end? Do you know the ups and downs and trials the character will face? There’re plenty of ways this story could go. The MC could come out cancer free, die of cancer, meet someone else with cancer…
And whether you consciously recognize it or not, your brain is constantly trying to work out what will happen. Which means you’re that much more invested.
Now imagine if Green hadn’t mentioned cancer and instead generally talked about death. Would you have been as invested? Would your brain have been working to come up with Whos and Hows and Whys? Possibly. But, personally, thinking about the millions of ways to die is a bit trying. A hint; that’s all we need.
- Crisis moment without a unique hook or slant: A death, someone in pain, something tragic or horrible…these are very general. Are you picking up on the pattern here? Generalizations should be avoided in your first page. So take a moment of crisis such as a bank robbery in progress. How could you give that a unique hook? Hmm, maybe the main character recognizes the robber as someone from school/work/church. Or perhaps the thieves have tan lines and leave scuffs of SexWax on the counter. (Okay, I stole that from my all-time favorite movie.) Throw in that one catch that makes your story stand out from the rest.
- Waking up sequence: In a hospital, a bed, with a phone or alarm…this is a red flag for two reasons. One, waking up is a mundane activity that often leads to further mundane activities (getting dressed, brushing teeth, etc.) and two, it’s a bit overdone. Don’t believe me? Ask any avid reader to tick off three, four, even five books that begin with a waking up sequence and give them ten seconds.
- A few others you should avoid: immediate flashbacks (big red flag—already slowed the momentum of the story before it’s even started); interior monologue or reflection (if your character is thinking, then he/she is not acting); dialogue without the context or characterization (don’t go on too long with dialogue without giving readers a reason to care); travel openings (if you’ve ever traveled in a bus/car/plane/etc. you know how boring it is…Is that the first thing you want your readers to feel?).
Now I know you’re probably thinking of authors who’ve started their books with one or more of these and it’s true. Some have, either making it work or not, but as a writer trying to break into this business, personally, I try to avoid them. What about you?