Your first few pages need to accomplish more than just a simple introduction to the story and/or characters, and with every book, 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, that’s 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 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. There are millions of avid readers of fiction out there, and although we are certainly all unique, 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 2 (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.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 of 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.
So, make sure you cover these five things, and you’ll have readers thoroughly entertained and turning those pages in no time.
The lesson here is to know how to pull potential readers inside from page one. Choose wisely how you start your story. Do your best, and those unlikely readers might not be so unlikely when you release your next book.
May the writing gods be with you as you Write On, Authors!