Why our first pages need to accomplish more than just a simple introduction to the story.
There are millions of avid readers of fiction out there, and although we are certainly all unique in our own way, there are similar traits about readers we can put into categories.
There are the COMMITTED READERS.
The readers who 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 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 expert opinion) and the ending is just as disappointing as every page before... Well, that’s where the wall comes in.
Then we have the CONSIDERING Readers.
These are the readers 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 2 (maybe sooner, depending on the length) they still haven’t gotten there, that’s it for them. They close the book, never to open that binding again.
And last there are the CONTEMPTUOUS Readers.
These readers are the ones who give the author a single page at best and at worst the first few sentences. The Contemptuous Readers are not as rare as writers would hope, either. No, indeed, they are quite common and just as particular as any publisher or literary agent.
Although satisfying every reader is an impossible task 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 these readers 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 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 by 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 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 readers' attention and pulling them in, your first page should clearly define 5 things:
1. Your Point of View and Narrative Voice
With the first three words of Moby Dick, I know 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 needs to be unpacked. You might say I knew this going in because of the book’s description or back cover blurb, but guess what? I don’t read them! 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 of my senses are engaged before I've turned a page.
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.
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.
Make sure you cover these five things and you'll have readers thoroughly entertained and turning those pages in no time.