Thursday, 24 February 2011

First pages

* I’ve just started a new book, and appropriately enough we’ve been looking at first pages and opening scenes in the Slush Pile to the Shelves course. 

Your first page is crucial when it comes to getting out of the slush pile, so it’s worth giving it a lot of thought.   Readers will often give an established reader the benefit of the doubt, but if you’re a new writer, you need to grab an editor or agent’s attention right at the  beginning and make them want to read on. 

Opening scenes have to do several jobs:

* Introduce the main characters.  In a romance, the hero and heroine.  You’ll read lots of romances when they don’t in fact meet until two or three pages in, but if you’re starting out, I recommend getting the hero on the first page if you can, and ideally the first line.

* Establish what kind of characters these are, and why we should care about them.

* Hint at the problem to come (their conflicting goals)

* Show something of the heroine’s ‘ordinary world’ that is going to change by the end of the story.  Where exactly are we?  A few telling details to convey a vivid setting are often all that’s needed to ‘anchor the reader in time and space’ (Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles & Ends)

* Intrigue the reader and make her want to read on.  What is going to be different about this story? 

* Establish the tone of the story.  Is it intense and passionate, or flirty and fun? 

Read first scenes of most popular stories and note how often they start with an indication that something is about to CHANGE (always a key word?)  Perhaps the character discovers some new information or arrives in a strange place or meets someone new.  Or perhaps something happens that will lead to change.

Starting at a point of crisis is often an effective way to suck the reader into the story.  Starting in the middle of a conversation can  also give an immediacy to the scene.  If you can do both it’s even better!

Finding the right point at which to begin can often be difficult.  Many of the manuscripts I’ve read get bogged down in backstory and setting up the situation.  If you think this might be your problem, ask yourself if the story wouldn’t be stronger if you began it at Chapter 4 instead.  Cut out all the explanation and move straight to the point of crisis and change.   

Sometimes it takes ages to find the right first line, but in the book I’m just starting I had it in mind from the start; ‘No.  No, no, no, no, no.  No.’ (Repetitive?  Hmmnn, maybe, but what I hope is that the reader will think ‘No, what?  No, why?’  And I’ve already decided that the last line of the book is going to be ‘Yes’ – and in case you haven’t had the point rammed home quite enough, that’s a very obvious way of showing that this character has CHANGED!)

Every story makes an ‘implicit promise’ at its start: read this and you’ll laugh/cry/sigh/be intrigued/moved/excited/scared and so on.  The reader wants to know that you can make good on the promise the title and cover makes, and the first page will reassure her that she’s in safe hands and can give herself up to the enjoyment of the story.  So take the time to get the whole of the first scene right.

I’m at the rough draft stage so am just blocking my story out for now, but I’ll be going back and polishing those first few pages, because once they’re right, the rest of the story tends to fall into place.  

Or that’s the plan, anyway.


  1. Hi Jessica.

    Thanks for the tips and advice re the first page.

  2. Thanks Jessica for the really useful advice. I'll be trying to put it into practice in my current MS.

  3. That's great advise, Jessica. Thanks for sharing this.
    By the way did you get the picture of Amritsar I posted? I didn't get to hear about it.
    Really enjoyed 'Convenient Engagements'. Love your writing.

  4. I'm already intrigued by your first line. This reader wants to know why lol.

    Fantastic tips! Thanks Jessica :)

  5. I'm expecting great things of your manuscripts since you've been following the "course" so diligently! Very pleased you're all finding it helpful!

    And Ruchita, no, I didn't get the photos of Amritsar! I would certainly have replied to let you know that I'd had them and to thank you.

    I've changed computers recently so lost all my email addresses. Could you possibly send them again to attaching as jpegs? I'd love to see them and put one up here! I've got a lovely photo Nas sent from Fiji which is going up soon, and it would be wonderful to work my way round the world ...

  6. Great tips and just in time. I'm trying to revise an old old manuscript and I can finally see the problems from what you just mentioned. Oiy.

  7. Great advice. I have just completed three chapters - this is an excellent time to go and see if they shape up :)