First-page speed-dating; full of nervous anticipation you sit down knowing nothing about the ‘date’ in front of you. Will your ‘date’ prove interesting, engaging, compelling? Will you want to spend more time with them? What attracts you extend the date to page two?
It may be a silly metaphor, but when it comes to a new book, most of us indulge in a little first-page speed-dating. After all: too many books, so little time. Two, three, four hundred pages is a big investment of time and attention.
Whether you’re in a bookshop or browsing online, it’s far too easy to flick open the first page or the ‘look inside’ feature. Don’t like what you see on page one? Swipe left.
The Speed-Dating Check-list
The author has to achieve a number of things on page one to capture the reader.
Most writing coaches will include four items. The best will give you five.
You can extend the speed-dating metaphor with the initial four:
- create tension (chemistry)
- introduce the main character (personality)
- establish a setting (where it’s coming from, or where it’s going)
- establish the style and voice (conversation)
That’s four items on your speed-dating checklist. How many check-marks out of four does it take to get a second date, turning to page two? Two of those? Three? All four?
Remember this is one page. The first page. With a chapter heading and some white space at the top, not even a full page.
That’s a lot to do before the speed-dating bell rings at the bottom of the page and the reader decides if it’s a yes or a no.
More than at any other time, Page One has to focus on what immediately matters.
But what about item five…?
What not to do
I’ll add ‘don’t overload the page with backstory.’ There’s time for backstory later on. And what about prologues? We’ve also discussed bad prologues here in the past.
For the most part, prologues make my heart sink. If your date sits down and right out of the gate tells you about their great-grandfather, or their school days, that’s a no, right? Why go off on a tangent, or ancient history? What happened to living in the now? To telling your story?
Item Five: a Question
See what I did? I dropped a heavy hint at the fifth item for page one and left you hanging…
Item five is a question. Page one has to set a question the reader wants answered. Questions create curiosity. Curiosity draws the reader to stick around for the next 200 pages. So ask a question on page one, but don’t answer it.
The most common questions are:
- Who is our main character?
- Why are they unhappy?
- What do they want?
- Why do they want it?
- Why can’t they get it?
- Who or what is stopping them?
The best questions come from character. Beyond what they want, what do they tell us about themselves? What aren’t they telling us? Keep something back. Add a little mystery. Often the best questions come from what is left unsaid.
Call this the Opening Hook. It’s the subtle (or not so subtle) art of manipulation.
Mystery writers understand this, even when they don’t open on the crime or the crime scene.
The obvious opening hook is an action scene. The question might be what happened before this, as well as what happens next?
Action doesn’t mean life or death combat – although I use it a lot. Action is the character in motion, actively engaged in something; travelling, working, investigating, arguing. Waking up and brushing teeth don’t count.
Travelling – where to? Why? What happens if they don’t get there?
Pride and Sacrilege
Pride and Prejudice (yes, collect a sticker) has that corker of an opening line. The first line ticks all five items on the list, including the question – is this statement true?
On with Page One. We get two principal characters in dialogue discussing Netherfield, Bingley, the marriage market and a hint at marriageable daughters. Mrs Bennett demands action from Mr Bennett. Depending on your edition, you may get the discussion of Lizzie’s virtues on page one. It’s a near perfect opener.
But not perfect.
A modern day-editor would probably urge a re-write: Jane rushes in to interrupt Lizzie’s reading with the news that Bingley is renting Netherfield. We get a dialogue between the two sisters, Jane reporting their parents’ conversation, Lizzie providing the snarky commentary. Protagonist introduced front-and-centre on page one, complete with chemistry, tension, style and voice, and a whole raft of questions.
That’s a perfect opening by today’s standards. Ms. Austen needed a better editor.
What do I have in my fantasy series?
- Book One: flash-forward to an action scene; Jo, Varla and Radek in direct conflict.
- Book Two: flash forward to similar action scene; Jo and Straka in conflict (we think)
- Book Three: Jo’s vision of Varla confronting the Emperor.
Are my three speed-dates worth a second page? You’ll have to find out.