Attention spans are getting shorter, reading choice is getting bigger; which is why writers have to include five items on page one
After the book’s cover, page one is where most readers start. Anyone who says you have the first chapter to set out your stall is peddling old advice. Page one has a lot to do if you’re to get the reader to turn over to page two and keep going.
In no special order, then:
Introduce the Main Character
Ideally the reader needs to know who the main character is; there better be a good reason for NOT mentioning them on page one. Who do you want the reader to root for for the next 200 pages? If the main character isn’t likeable, sympathetic or empathetic, they better be proactive or competent. At least, interesting, amusing or entertaining. I’ve put down books because the main character wasn’t any of those. I also didn’t want to stick around for their redemption arc. Life’s too short.
Set expectations / make promises
Refer back to Sanderson‘s Promises, Progress and Payoffs. You better set some expectations and make some promises of what I’m getting in the next 200 pages. That’s genre, tone, setting, style, point of view and some hint about plot.
Start with Action
Don’t start with the weather, the main character’s morning routine, or navel-gazing introspection with no context. Somebody needs to be doing something. It doesn’t have to be a war or Die Hard. The romance Pride and Prejudice begins in a frenzy of speculation at the news at of the new tenant at Netherfield.
You don’t need to explain everything right way. Hint. Build suspense and a little mystery for the following pages.
What is the event that kick-starts the novel? Again, the new tenant at Netherfield brings the Bingley’s and the Darcy’s. We’re straight into the upheaval that changes Elizabeth Bennett’s life.
Cut the Filler
Page one is one page. How much can you pack in? Save the extra description, world-building, sub-plots and side characters for page two.
Of course, you can list exceptions for some of those on page one, just not all of them. We can think of main characters, hooks and action missing from page in favour of atmosphere, setting, style and tone, but these are rare. Those are bold writing choices and the writing better be good. You skip any of these five items at your peril.
The Five-Item Test
Pick a random book off your bookshelf and count down how many of the five are on page one. If the writer knows their craft, you’ll find them; cunningly disguised, veiled or hinted at. But there they are.