Opening a book for the first time, a reader wants to feel like they can trust an author to make good on their promise to tell a satisfying story. When writing a book, it’s easy for a writer to overthink your opening scene. You don’t want to inundate your reader with too much dense information, and you don’t want to open your book with a scene that does nothing to actually service the story. So, when you’re putting together your book’s opening, what should you be thinking about? What should go into that very first page?
The First Page
Have a first line that resonates — and pulls you right in.
It doesn’t matter so much if your first line is some intensely quotable sentence that will forever be immortalized on Best First Lines in Literature Listicles and bookish tote bags and inked on diehard bookworm’s forearms. What your first line needs to do — the only thing it needs to do — is make the reader want to read the second line.
The first line doesn’t have to be a show stopper. In fact, it needs to be a show starter. Your first line needs to part the curtains, switch on the lights, and pull the reader into the action on the stage. Try not to overthink this part, and try very hard not to overwrite it. Write exactly the sentences the scene needs in order to work, and worry about the first line of your novel only as an incidental consequence of starting your scene in the right place.
Set the tone.
Whether your book is humorous, fantastical, a tense crime thriller, or a sizzlingly steamy romance, you want to tonally represent those elements right off the bat. Your first page shouldn’t open with a scorching sex scene if the rest of the novel is a sexless political satire. Let your voice shine through right away, and let readers know exactly what’s in store for them if they stick around.
Introduce plot-affecting characters.
Ideally you would introduce your main character, or maybe antagonist, on the very first page of your novel. At the very least, make sure any character you’re introducing is important for the story that follows. Don’t introduce someone only to kill them off before the end of the chapter unless their death spawns the events of the story. So, make sure it makes sense, from a story’s perspective, to open with whatever character you choose.
For instance, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t open with Harry. The first page introduces Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, the strict and rigid Muggles whose lives are about to be upended when an orphaned infant wizard is placed on their doorstep. Vernon Dursley is an active player in the Harry Potter series, with a role that persists throughout the seven books. It’s not egregiously out of place that the novel begins with him, especially as we consider Vernon’s section of the chapter a look at the Wizarding world from a resistant Muggle’s perspective.
Above everything else, your first page needs to start your story.
This is where understanding plot structure and really, really, really understanding the story you’re trying to tell becomes vitally important. Your first page should lend to your first scene, which should launch your novel like a bullet from a gun, sending the reader on a soaring trajectory that doesn’t let them go until the target’s red bull’s eye is struck. Don’t worry about explaining your character’s backstory, or providing dense chunks of worldbuilding. Think of your novel like a moment; decide on the opening scene that introduces your characters, your conflict, and your setting. A full scene, not the start of endless exposition, but a moment in your character’s life.
If you do that, if your first page starts your story, then everything else is icing.
Happy Writing. : )
Looking for more novel-writing advice? Try some of the following posts: