We polled agents and editors, and all of them agree: the first page of a manuscript can determine whether it gets bumped up to must-read status, or tossed in the slush pile. As Elizabeth Bewley, Senior Editor at Poppy (Little, Brown) says, “A great first page can literally stop me in my tracks. Worries, thoughts, errands, everyday minutiae—they’re out of my mind completely, replaced by the promise of a journey.”
BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING (DUH)
Okay, we know it’s important, but how do we do it? Well, every great first page starts with a great first sentence.
When crafting a great first page, in my opinion, it’s most important to get that first sentence right. A perfect first sentence is unusual enough to capture a reader’s attention. . .and set the stage for the character’s dilemma–be it internal or external. First impressions are everything, after all!
—Anne Heltzel, Associate Editor, Razorbill (Penguin)
How do you make an unusual, stage-setting first sentence? Lauren Oliver says: “In Before I Fall I start with a sentence that contains an inherently surprising or contradictory piece of information. ‘They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not how it happened for me.’ Right off the bat, the reader should wonder what’s different about this person’s story and how it’s going to be told. In Delirium the first line is: ‘It has been sixty-four years since the president identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.’ The basic premise of the book is established in that one sentence, and the hope is that it’s a premise people haven’t read about before. They’ll want to know more.”
I’M SO FREAKING EXCITED!
Do you love surprises as much as Sue from SNL? We do! And so do the editors and agents we spoke to. Never forget: books are supposed to be more interesting than real life! They are mirrors, but they are imperfect mirrors: they distort and amplify, according to what is most provocative, fascinating, or troublesome. Consider images or phrases that are surprising, arresting, and unexpected: a spaceship burying into the earth. A twelve-year old president of the United States. An evil genius about to push a button that will launch a nuclear weapon. By showcasing actions or emotions that contradict or complicate a reader’s understanding of the “standard” world, you create immediate curiosity.
Another way to incorporate surprise is to use interesting juxtaposition or contrasting elements. Your first paragraph or two might provide contrast to the rest of the book or to the reader’s expectations. A sentence with a double-meaning can have that effect, too. Take this example, from the opening lines of Rachel Vail’s Do Over: “I don’t get girls. I don’t mean get like get, which is also true, but I mean I don’t really get what’s up with them. Why can’t they just be normal?” Here the pun on the word get creates a mini-moment of surprise and humor that awakens curiosity.
You can also try large-scale irony or contrast, as with the opening of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
The genius in this opening is manifold—both the structure and content of the sentence draw us in. First, the grandeur of tone coupled with the absurdity of a long list of self-contradicting statements, begs the reader to wonder,“how can any of this be true?” Then, the length of the sentence alone exacerbates the reader, and just when you’re feeling completely fed up and confused, the sentence ends with the ironic conclusion that the most important thing is not whether the times were good or bad but that they were extremely so, poking fun at all of our expectations.
BE A TEASE
If surprise isn’t happening for you, perhaps you’ll try her sister, suspense! The essence of suspense is the desire for more information. In other words, make your reader ask a question.
However, if your reader is too confused—in other words, if you provide no information—you might lose her attention. The reader must be given a foothold into the world of the story, just enough of the puzzle to want to find the missing pieces. You have to give a little, but not too much. Lead your reader on a bit! Perhaps your character is running frantically, but we don’t yet know why. Perhaps she’s wishing she’d done everything differently, or perhaps she’s waiting for a door to open or for someone to answer the phone. Immediately, we’re thrown into a situation in which we too want to know what she’s running from, what’s on the other side of the door, whether the person on the other end of the call will answer.
OR, BEGIN IN THE MIDDLE!
I like to be dropped into it. Whether that means the voice is immediate and accessible; the atmosphere is pervasive; or I join an interesting moment already in progress… if I get that “lost” feeling where I’m fully immersed and the real world fades away? I’m in.
—Jennifer Klonsky, Editorial Director, Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
We’ve all heard the term in media res—“in the middle of things”—but then when we sit down to write, we’re tempted to start with information, explanation, back-story. First person narratives are especially prone to openers that launch straight into a long monologue in the speaker’s voice. “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been different from all the other girls at school…. It all started back when bla bla bla.” JD Salinger even makes fun of this kind of opening in the first paragraph of The Catcher in the Rye: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” Well, often the reader doesn’t feel like going into it either!
Let’s compare literature to film, for a second. Imagine if every movie began with an image of the world, and then a slow zoom onto a particular house, and a particular street, and a particular character, simply to establish that we are on earth and in America. In a book, back-story functions like this slow zoom; it provides us information that can be presumed at the start, and answers questions that the reader has not even had time to formulate. This is the opposite of suspense. It gives too much information, much of it useless or unnecessary.
Instead, opening in media res is the literary equivalent of a tight close-up. We see a character performing an action without a broader context, and thus are forced to read on to understand the context of the action. Beginning a story “in media res” guarantees a certain level of suspense (see above), because reader will be forced to ask questions and start filling in the blanks.
Example #1 (Action):
Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack. Fisher Bas dashed down the main hall of Wompalog Middle school, wishing he hadn’t worn flip-flops. (Popular Clone, M.E. Castle)
Example #2 (Internal Moment):
I spot her out of the corner of my eye and freeze. It always happens like this.
My body goes tingly.
Blood thrums in my ears: a low buzz, like a faraway swarm of insects, and every cell in my body screams: save her save her save her.
There’s nothing I can do but obey. (The Butterfly Clues, Kate Ellison)
Example #3 (Dialogue):
“Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. (The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay)
“After reading a first page, I ask myself: do I know where I am as a reader and do I want to stay there? Because the great first pages always transport me immediately into the atmosphere of the story and give me a taste of the coming conflict. If a first page does that, I’m definitely reading on.”
—Greg Ferguson, Senior Editor, Egmont USA
Okay so you’re looking to start in media res but you still aren’t sure your scene speaks for itself. You’re worried, perhaps, that the reader simply won’t get what’s going on. The trick is not to get paranoid and starting feeding the reader information, but instead to start fleshing out the scene with vivid details that immerse the reader in the story, making her unable to stop reading.
The world of a story must feel immediately detailed. Keep in mind that evoking a “real” world does not mean encumbering the story with lots of generalities and back-story. For example, let’s say your book begins on a spaceship. We don’t, as a reader, need to know that the USA launched a space program to populate Mars in 3006, after several hundred years of experimentation and financing, in order to combat the effect of various environmental disasters on the planet. In fact, that information—though it might be necessary later—distracts us from the “present” action of the book.
Instead, we simply need a sense that the spaceship is “real.” That the characters who exist there have mechanisms by which they eat, breathe, and interact. Is there coffee on the spaceship? Do people still drink coffee? What are the details of mundane, everyday life that can be applied to and transformed by this futuristic existence? How far is the spaceship from Mars? Is one character nervous about the mission? Is another character eager to tank it, for reasons of his/her own?
Reality is not the same as factual information. Reality is the sweat on the outside of a beer glass. Facts are the forces of condensation that lead to this phenomenon. We do not need to know all the facts at the start of a story, and, in fact, we shouldn’t. We simply need to see those beads of water as they make their slithery trails down the side of the glass, and we will figure out the rest ourselves.
Details do more than simply convey hidden information, though. They also create mood. And mood is another powerful way to sink a reader immediately into the story. Sometimes a beautiful, disturbing, or evocative image can be far more memorable and compelling than a plain old everyday prosaic statement. Take for instance, the opening to one of Lexa’s favorites, Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement:
“I don’t remember any of the true, important parts, but there’s this dream I have. Everything is cold and branches scrape the window screen. Giant trees, rattling, clattering with leaves. White rain gutter, the curtain flapping.”
Keep in mind that your best starting paragraph may be some compelling moment from later in the book. Try picking one of your most interesting or lush passages, and see how it works if you paste it in as your opener!
MORE FIRST LINES TO OGLE, DROOL OVER, AND ASPIRE TO EMULATE!
Here are a few of our favorite round-ups of awesome first lines!
What are your top book-starters? We’d love to see and be inspired by them, too!