Ah, first pages. We angst over them. We change them incessantly. We hope they’ll nab readers and agents and editors. No pressure, right? While there are many big considerations for what your first page must do, today we’ll be covering five micro-edits you can apply that work like stealthy secret weapons. Those people you hope will fall in love with your first page won’t even know you’ve clenched them until it’s too late to close the book.
Make Your Protagonist Part of the Very First Line
Research shows that readers are looking for who represents them as soon as the very first line of our stories. The faster we signal who that character is, the more likely they are to bond with them and become invested in the story. Even if your story starts with setting, or a line of dialogue or action that belongs to a character who isn’t your protagonist, consider a way to bring them into that first line. Perhaps the action of the other character leads to an immediate reaction in your protagonist, or there’s a way to start the story one line earlier. Maybe the dialogue of the other character hits your protagonist’s ears a certain way. Attaching the reader to their story “guide” in that first line increases your chances for getting them to stick around for the rest of your book.
Give Your Characters Indirect Lines of Dialogue
The mind loves to wrestle with clues. To work on solving mysteries. One common mistake in writing our first pages is that as we get to know our characters and their dynamics, we play interactions out from start to finish in ways that reflect unfamiliarity. We include greetings. We have the characters use one another’s names. We utilize dialogue as a way to include exposition. All of these read in a somewhat contrived way because, in theory, your characters’ lives are in-progress when we meet them. They wouldn’t need to call each other by name, or exchange standard greetings, or pass along information that the other character probably already knows. Challenge yourself to bypass the stock interactions and sink into the world en medias res. What are your characters not saying that evokes our curiosity? What are they saying that makes us “read between the lines?” Are you utilizing movement and body language that hints that more is lurking beneath the surface? Clues that contrast the dialogue? For any given line of dialogue, is there an emotional “cloud” hanging over it that we can feel? Are the characters conveying a goal in their line, even if that goal is avoidance or resistance? Do we feel the push and pull of tension between what each character wants in the scene through what they say? Consider crafting each line of dialogue as a clue—a line that gives rise to a question as soon as read it.
Manipulate White Space
Sometimes, we’re so focused on what our writing is saying that we might overlook the way what we don’t say plays into the reading experience. We tend to forget that the physical words we put onto the page can impact our readers in powerful ways. Think about how you feel when you turn the page of a book and take in lots of writing. Blocky, long paragraphs and few paragraph breaks steal the “wind” out of your sail before you even start tackling the page. This type of writing slows our readers down and induces them to want to take a break. Or worse, to stop reading altogether. Conversely, think about the way a novel-in-verse reads, or poetry. We breeze through the pages, our eyes flying through the words thanks to all that white space. If getting readers to turn pages means they stay inside our stories, breaking up chunky blocks of text and maximizing white space encourages them to keep reading. Before they know it, they’ve several pages into our books and they’re invested.
The other benefit to manipulating white space is that new paragraphs shift a reader’s attention. It alerts them that something is changing, whether it be the character, the idea, or something else. Any time we want the reader to pay extra attention and to add emphasis, new paragraphs can be a powerful tool.
Avoid Complex Sentences
We can mistake good writing as beautiful, impressive writing. Long, lyrical lines that have our readers oohing and aahing. But writing that draws attention to itself is largely quite distracting. The reader’s focus shifts from the story to the words. It’s important that we remind ourselves that generally, readers don’t open a book for the writing. They come for the story. If the reader trips over the clever words we’ve chosen, or has to focus on a lengthy line, or digest a clever, complex metaphor, they may feel the need to go back and reread it to ensure comprehension. Or, they completely lose track of the story itself as they turn over the words. As writers, we want to avoid anything that stops readers and causes them to yank out of the reading experience. Direct, easy-to-read, smooth lines are our secret weapons in keeping the reader in our stories. The fewer multi-syllabic words, the fewer commas and clauses, the fewer fancy things to hold onto in any given line, the better. Remember, story over writing. And on a first page, this will be especially important so that the reader is onto all the pages ahead before they know it.
Manipulate Sentence Length to Evoke Mood
I often tell my clients that one of their primary jobs is to make the reader worry. Circling back to the points above, direct sentences not only ensure comprehension, they can be used to create emotions in your reader. Short, staccato sentences evoke the feeling of a pulse. Jolted, tense movement. Worry. While we wouldn’t want our entire first page to read this way, it’s important to apply this knowledge deliberately to the lines where we want the reader to worry. Where we want their pulses to race, and fear to grip them. If our first page is a sea of long, leisurely lines, tension falls and the reader gets the sense nothing is wrong. There’s nothing to fix and no story question nagging at them. Think about how you can deliberately play with mood by structuring each sentence.
What are some of your go-to micro-edits for first pages? Are you maximizing any of the ones we’ve covered already and seeing the impact? Open a favorite book and see if the author applied any of these micro-edits in ways you hadn’t even noticed at first glance. We’d love to hear your thoughts!
This post is packed with tips that will help strengthen your first page before our Phenomenal First Pages Contest on October 25.
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over seven years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.