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ALWAYS PUT YOUR BEST FOOT RIGHT OUT FRONT AND ON THAT FIRST PAGE


Your first few pages need to accomplish more than just a simple introduction to the story and/or characters, and with every book, no matter the genre, an author should strive to put their best foot right out front.


So, how do we ensure that's exactly what we're doing? Well, let me give you a few pointers.


Now, keep in mind that I’m possibly in a minority class here, but personally, I never read back cover blurbs. Especially if the book I’m considering is by an author I know and love. For me, reading the blurb is like reading a spoiler.


If I’m contemplating purchasing a book by an author unknown to me, I’ll read the first page, maybe a tad more, to see if the writing style connects with me and the story/character(s) grab me. If so, I buy it. If not, it goes back on the shelf.


Then, when I get this book home and start reading, I expect to be enthralled from the start. Give me a reason to want to turn the page, or I might just put it down and choose another. If I’m not quite to the point of being enthralled by the end of the first page but at least interested, I’ll keep going for a bit. But only a bit before I start skimming and scanning for dialogue or action. That means the pacing has slowed considerably, and the author is about to lose me.


But again, this method of choosing a new read probably isn’t that typical.


The lesson here is that, yes, your cover is the first thing readers will see, and that's important for sure. As is the blurb you put on the outside of your book. But never forget how crucial that first page of the story is as well.


There's an analogy I heard once that explains the importance of each, and hopefully, I can repeat it correctly. I believe it goes like this: Your cover is a reader's first impression of your story, and your book blurb is the handshake. But it's your opening page that is their true introduction.


You see, a large majority of readers won't give you much more than that first page to pull them in, and some won't even go beyond that first paragraph. So, don't waste it on backstory or what could be perceived as filler.


There are millions of avid readers of fiction out there, and although we are certainly all unique in many ways, there are some similar traits about readers we can put into categories, and here are just a few:


THE COMMITTED READER

The committed reader will finish a book they start no matter how uninteresting or how much they aren’t into it. In other words, these readers believe they’ve made a commitment from page one and will stick to it no matter what. They’re the ones who tell tales of throwing books across the room. They will wait and wait for the story to get better, and when it doesn’t (in their humble opinion) and the ending is just as disappointing as every page before... Well, that’s where the wall comes in.


THE CONSIDERING READER

The considering reader is one who will give it a chapter or two before making up their minds. Maybe the first few pages didn’t grab them as they’d hoped, but they’re still willing to give the author a chance to reel them in. However, if by the end of Chapter Two (maybe sooner, depending on the chapter lengths) they still haven’t gotten there, that’s it for them. They close the book, never to open that binding again.


THE CONTEMPTUOUS READER

The contemptuous reader will give the author a single page at best and the first few sentences at worst. And authors should beware because this type of reader is not as rare as writers would hope. No, indeed. The contemptuous reader is quite common and just as particular as any publisher or literary agent.


So, don't waste those precious opening words on backstory or filler.


Although satisfying every reader is an impossible task and one we should in no way bother to strive for (if we value our sanity), we should, as writers of fiction, do our best to capture the biggest share of all readers of our genre while still being true to ourselves and to our stories.


And so, if you’ve been paying attention, or if you agree at all with the assessment above, you’ve figured out that by focusing on the Contemptuous Reader, you can hook both the Committed and Considering Readers at the same time.

 

So, how do we go about making sure our first few pages do the job?


Just as our book covers should clearly tell a potential reader what type of book they’re picking up, our first page should confirm it. With the cover, we do this through our choices of colors, fonts and graphics. For example, you wouldn’t expect to see a horror novel dressed in pastels or with cartoon graphics on the front cover. Nor would you expect a sweet, lighthearted and fun romance to have a dark cover with dramatic fonts and lack any graphic detail whatsoever.


To accomplish the feat of grabbing your reader's attention and pulling them in, your first page should clearly define five things:


1. Your Point of View and Narrative Voice

With the first three words of Moby Dick, the narrator has a somewhat jaded yet realistic point of view. The narrative voice has a distinctive male feel and sound, and I get this not only because of the name Ishmael. It’s in every word choice, everything the narrator describes and how he tells the story.


2. Your Main Character 

It took me only the first two paragraphs of The Kite Runner to learn the main character is a male, still young by definition, and with a past that haunts him—issues or baggage that need to be unpacked. You might say I knew this going in because of the book’s description or back cover blurb, but as I stated above, I don’t read those.


The author showed me this without shoving back story in my face, but instead, by the narrator’s subtle reflection that at the same time told me even more about the main character’s personality. I felt as though I knew the main character intimately by the end of page one.


3. The Stage or Setting

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck immediately sets me down in Oklahoma in late spring. I see in my mind’s eye corn stalks swaying gently in the breeze. I feel the humidity on my skin and the dust that coats it. And I smell baked earth and horses. All my senses are engaged before I’ve turned a single page. I’m right there, inside the book with the character.


4. Your Main Character’s Desire or Goal

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wastes no time introducing me to a young boy who wants merely to be free of responsibility and rules. That connection to the character, that kinship, has me happily wanting to trot right along beside him to join in those adventures.


5. Your Theme

And when I open to page one of I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayl, it takes no more than that first page to know I’m about to be entertained with snark, sarcasm and plenty of wit, all things I enjoy immensely in a good book.



One More Tip

I'm sure you've heard the advice, "Always start with action." What the experts mean by that is to start where the story you're telling begins. Whatever your inciting incident is, that's where your storytelling should begin. Something should be happening, something that changes everything for the protagonist.


Leave the backstory for when that information is relevant to the scene at hand and needed. Ask yourself: is now when the reader needs to know this information? Or is this where that information fits into the scene? If your answer isn't yes to either one of those questions, don't include it. Leave it for the right moment, and only disburse backstory in bits and pieces. Never give them info dumps. That's a sure way to bring your pacing to a near halt.



The lesson here is to choose wisely where to start your story. Cover as much of the five elements above as you can, leave out any backstory not needed right then, and you’ll have readers thoroughly entertained and turning those pages in no time.


Always do your best, of course, but be sure to put your best work where even an unlikely reader will see it. Right on that first page.


Do that, and they might not be an unlikely reader when you release your next book.



May the writing gods be with you as you Write On, Authors!


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