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A great first page is key

A successful book is a complex cocktail of good writing, good ideas, good marketing, and good timing—with a little good luck thrown in on top. The mixture is different for every book, and there’s no easy formula—but there is one thing almost all successful books have in common: a great first page. The first page should grab the attention of agents, publishers, and readers, and make them want to read more.

At PageToFame, authors submit just one page to get started. Readers rate that page, and if it gets enough high marks to move on to Round 2, a prominent agent will review the page, and the author will be invited to submit a first chapter. If it passes to Round 3, an agent will take a look, and the author can submit an even longer writing sample—and so on, until an entire manuscript is submitted for rating and review. Books that make it all the way to the final round have a great shot at being picked up by an agent and getting a publishing deal—and it all starts with that great first page.

Perfecting the first page

There are as many ways to start a book as there are—well, books. Different topics, different styles, different genres, different writers—all call for different book openings. While there are no hard and fast rules, these tips may help you write a successful first page:

  • Less is more. A good opening will suck readers in, commanding their attention and arousing their curiosity. Including too much information or background at the beginning of your narrative can be overwhelming and slow down your momentum. You’ll have plenty of time to clue your readers in to all the minutiae later on. For your first page, pick one central fact or event, and jump right into the action. Many thrillers, horror stories, romances, and other genre favorites use the technique of starting in media res (that is, in the middle of a scene). Plenty of literary classics also dispense with rumination and back-story early on.

    For example, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, begins: “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…I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.”

    Leaving some necessary information out at the beginning leaves a reader wanting more—particularly if you tell them what you’re not telling them, as Salinger does.

  • Write a page-turner. Once readers open your book, there are two major reasons they will want to turn the page. Either they want to know what happens next, or they want to know how or why something happens. If your story depends on readers wanting to know what happens next, you can make a splash on page one by starting with an action or situation that creates suspense. For example, the famous first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis — “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”— creates momentum because we want to know what happens to Gregor after he turns into a bug.

    In a book that depends on readers wanting to know how or why something happens, you can start by giving away the ending. For example, the first page of Carson McCullers’ novel Reflections in a Golden Eye includes these lines: “There is a fort in the South where a few years ago a murder was committed. The participants of this tragedy were: two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse." Readers are inspired to turn the page not to find out what happens — we already know that!—but to find out exactly how “two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse” are involved in a murder.

  • Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Take a look at some of your favorite books. How do those writers get started? Maybe you can find an approach that would work for your book. Keep your eyes open for these classic opening techniques:

  • Technique Example
    Food for thought: Open with an abstract or philosophical statement that is relevant to your book’s plot. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
    Meet the hero: Introduce a pivotal character on the first page. Jack Kerouac, On the Road: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”
    Show them where it hurts: Get right to the book’s central conflict. Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint: “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”
    Microcosmic anecdote: Tell a small story that serves as an example of the larger story to come. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: “For Hush Puppies—the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole—the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995.”
    Surprisingly mundane: Set an ordinary scene in which one intriguing, out-of-the-ordinary thing happens. Alice Munro, “Nettles,” Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: “In the summer of 1979, I walked into the kitchen of my friend Sunny’s house near Uxbridge, Ontario, and saw a man standing at the counter, making himself a ketchup sandwich.”
    Be self-conscious: Tell readers exactly what they’re about to read—whether it’s true or not. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: “’Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widdowed Male,’ such were the two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange pages it perambulates.”
    Begin at the end: Allude to the book’s conclusion—without giving everything away. Chuck Palahniuk, Rant: “Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead.”
    Set the scene: Paint a picture of an important physical location. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘Out There.’”
    Everyday people: Begin with a representative action that defines your character or theme. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: “On most days, I enter the Capitol through the basement.”
  • Make a good first impression. Your story’s opening is a lot like a first date—you know you’re being judged on all the little details of your presentation. At the very least, make sure your grammar, punctuation, and spelling are above reproach. That way, your readers will know that they are in the hands of a skilled writer, and they can sit back and enjoy the ride.

  • If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Getting a book’s beginning right can be a challenge even for the most talented, seasoned writers. WEbook’s PageToFame provides valuable feedback to help you determine if you’re on the right track. If your page doesn’t make it to the second round right away, don’t be discouraged. You can start a WEbook project to get more in-depth feedback about what works and what doesn’t. When you’re ready, you can enter PageToFame again.