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Is the first page of a novel really that important?

5

I am reading in a few blogs like this that the first page of the novel is really important if it has to get published. Is this true? Can a good story not compensate for an ordinary first page.

I have a first page which is the introduction of my characters in a pub, is it advisable to bring up the thriller on 3rd page to the first page and restructure my story.

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10 answers

5

Yes, the first page is vitally important. It is the place where engagement happens. It is the place where the reader either sinks into the world of the story or skates of the words without engaging.

It is the place where the character and/or setting either comes to life or remains lifeless. It is the place were the reader either goes, "Oh, interesting" or "Meh, boring."

Tolkien talked about literature creating a "sub-created" world. Either that world starts to open up on the first page or it does not. If it does not, bye bye reader.

The is not about action or drama, it is about a sense of reality and particularity. If the character or the setting seems artificial, if they seem like just another instance of a mass-produced pattern, then the reader is bored. If they seem real, if they seem particular. If the character seems like a real and particular person, not merely a representative of a type, then the reader feels like they have met someone, and they are engaged and they continue.

That ability to make a situation of a person seem real and particular is part of the alchemy of writing. While there is surely technique that goes into it, there is something more than technique in it as well. There is vision and there is art. Ask yourself, do you have a person in your head, or a type. Do you have a specific place in your head or only at type. Specificity is essential here. It is what creates the illusion for the reader that they are having an experience.

The first page initiates the reader into the experience of the people and places of the novel, and either they seem real and particular or they seem forumlaic and generic, and there in the reader is either captured or lost.

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3

The cover is important, the blurb is important, the reviews are important, the story structure is important. The first page is important.

One of the best exercises I ever did was to bring home twenty books in my genre and analyze the first page of each. There is a pattern, even with the differences between authors. I adapted that pattern to my manuscript and immediately people were more easily drawn in.

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3

YES, the first page is vitally important. But probably not in the way you think.

Don't bring the "thriller" up first.

The first page (and first sentence, and paragraph) is important in the same way your first meeting with somebody new is important. An agent or publisher (or indeed a customer thinking of buying your book) is going to read the opening line, the first paragraph, the first page to see if they like your style of writing, and see if you know how to begin a story and get the reader engaged.

They want to see if you make dumb mistakes (typos, grammar, clichés, other beginner errors like opening with a fight in progress, or opening with an info-dump, or detailed character descriptions, or the history of your setting, etc).

Agents (and the readers for publishers) reject 95% (or more, seriously) of the books or queries they receive, which means (practically speaking) they have to make snap decisions, and they do. Otherwise they'd have no time to do work that actually pays them money. They expect you to put a great deal of care into the opening sentence, the first page, the first ten pages (which many request).

They expect your most careful and attentive work there, and if it sucks, they don't need to read the rest. They aren't there to fix your work, or critique work, or help you get better, or see a promising young talent, or spot a diamond in the rough, they are there for one thing: to find writers that are already good writers, and represent already good writing, and make their 15%. That's it!

The service agents do for the publishers is screening, searching through the flood of dreck to find some gold nuggets.

No, it is not advisable to move the "thriller" to the first page.

The opening of the book is expected to be an engaging introduction to the main character(s) and the setting, a setup for a story to come. The setup usually lasts for 10% to 15% of the book, before the big problem of the book appears.

Nevertheless, this first 10% is supposed to be engaging. One way to do that is to introduce your character(s) by giving them a "little" or "throwaway" problem of some sort, not necessarily a problem important to the plot but a kind of problem they might encounter in their everyday life. This gives you a chance to talk about setting, show us some of their personality in the process of dealing with their little problem.

The problem with opening in the middle of action is closely related: If you do that, readers don't really care, because they don't know who is fighting, whose side they should be on, or anything else. In the opening pages, readers don't care because they don't have any context for understanding what is going on.

That is why nearly every movie and story begins with "The Normal World" of the hero; and the main problem first appears 10% or 15% of the way in. If the setting is complex (with magical, fantasy or scifi elements) the main problem is delayed somewhat, until the reader/audience is "up to speed" and has a basic grasp of what the heroes and villains can do, or what their ships can do, etc.

In some series (movie or TV or books) we can cut "The Normal World" quite short, since the audience is up to speed from the first book and doesn't need much reminder. But in a "from scratch" novel, don't rush the main conflict, it doesn't make the book more exciting at all, it makes it boring.

Your query letter, the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, the first ten pages, the first chapter: This is how you will be judged, quickly and ruthlessly, by agents and publishers. Nobody is going to invest the time to read your whole book or story if these alienate them.

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2

The first page of your novel is vitally important, but not necessarily because the action starts there. The first page, and first several pages, should:

  • set your tone and reader expectations. In a thriller, that means establishing a rhythm that will push forward rather than linger, and maybe having some sort of stakes already in play, even if they're unrelated to the central plot. (Your protagonist is running late to get to a meeting and is running to catch a bus pulling away from her bus stop.)
  • make your reader care to continue on: have a hook that grabs the reader's attention, makes them think, "now that's interesting," and pulls them from one paragraph to the next. Make them interested in solving a mystery from the first paragraph, even if it's a minor question only pertinent to your opening scene. (Why was she running late? Where was she rushing off to? What are the consequences of her tardiness?)
  • introduce some important aspect of character or theme; setting can be introduced here but is easy to overdo. Don't make setting the only thing you talk about; it is impersonal exposition and therefore doesn't make the reader care. In a thriller this is especially true; don't describe setting with any more words than you need to unless it can be worked into what the character is doing or is itself inherently thrilling.
  • be without flaws. It's early, you don't have to defend or overcome structural weaknesses here– but you do have to polish your writing to a mirror finish.

So, your story starts in a pub. I recall your writing sample from another question, where characters are showing up for a business meeting. Was that your opening for a thriller? If so, I'd suggest cutting down on context and starting inside the pub, with an argument about the product design or something to intrigue the reader and introduce the characters. You can work in the exposition after your opening paragraph.

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2

I am always surprised when aspiring writers ask this question. Because writers who ask this question forget their own reading experience.

How do you decide whether you want to read a book or not?

When you stand in a bookstore and haven't heard about a book you'll probably

  • look at the cover to get an idea of the genre

    If the cover signals a genre, setting, characters, or level of quality you are not interested in, you will put the book away.

  • read the blurb to get an idea of the story

    If the blurb promises the wrong kind of characterisation, stakes, or conflict, you will put the book away.

  • read the first page(s) to get an idea of the writing style and quality

    If the first page(s) are written in a style that bores or irriates you, or if the opening doesn't make you want to know more, you will put the book away.

The opening is the third threshold a reader has to cross on their way to buying your book. You'll want that threshold to be as low and inviting as possible.


The best way to learn how to write is to observe yourself when you read.

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1

I look at the first sentence as the "airport giftshop hook". If someone's got 5 minutes to kill before their flight, and wants to find an interesting read, how much of a hook is your first sentence (and perhaps then the rest of that first page afterwards)? Does it intrigue the reader, and make them want to read more?

Its perhaps a cheap trick, but its done so much that I've started to keep track of the better ones.

My current personal favorite is Jim Butcher's Ghost Story, which starts with:

Life is hard. Dying's easy.

WTH? 5 more (fairly philosophical) paragraphs pass

I died in the water.

Wait, what? This a huge thick book! What's it about, if the narrator's dead on page one? Well... that's the end of page one, so I have to turn to page two to find out...

Now you see what this diabolical writer has done? Its time to go board my flight now, I want to read page two, so I gotta now put this book back and perhaps never know, or pay for it so I can satisfy my curiosity.

Now you may say (heck you did say) that the chronological start of your story isn't a great section for a hook. Perhaps that can be worked around, but even if it can't, who says you have to open with the chronological beginning of the tale? Since I started keeping track of opening hooks, I've found it quite common for the hook to describe events further on, and then the author will rewind a bit to properly start the story.

Open up 10 or 20 of your favorite fiction works and pay attention to how they start, and you should begin to see how experienced professional writers handle this. Particularly genre fiction writers, who tend to be great at it.

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This is the first time I've ever seen that position espoused, the first chapter is always touted as vitally important to the reception of a novel so if that advances the plot sufficiently and is engaging you should be in good standing.

Though I'm not even sure that's necessarily true. I pick new material, when not recommended by others, by opening the book at random and reading the middle paragraph on the right. If I finish that and want to read more I pick it up and start from the beginning otherwise it goes back on the shelf.

It may be that this is a new attitude aimed at engaging audiences who read purely from electronic publications, certainly the opening pages of many of the classics aren't particularly interesting. Dune doesn't get into the main story for several chapters, the Narnia novels all start out by slowly setting the scene, The Hobbit is similar, Lord of the Rings takes even longer with the story covering some years before the adventure begins. In fact unless stories begin in medias res they should take time to establish the setting and characters.

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Yes, the first page is vitally important. If your first page is boring or confusing, many readers will give up right there. If your response is, "But this story gets really exciting in chapter 5", the reader has no way to know that. He sees that the first page is boring and makes the not-unreasonable assumption that the rest of the story is probably equally boring.

I heard an agent say once that a writer told him, "My story really gets moving about page 10." His reply was, "Then throw out the first 9 pages."

As others have noted in their answers, there are many contrived and lame ways to make the first page more exciting. Like, start with a car chase, then go back and explain who is chasing whom and why. This usually fails because if the reader don't know who is chasing whom, he doesn't care. Opening with a scene of someone showing great emotion, crying or screaming or whatever, usually just makes me feel uncomfortable because I don't know this character yet. I feel like I'm butting in on someone's private moment. Etc.

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It's like the first impression when you start reading a book. And I can guess what you are referring to as "not important". It actually depends on what content the first page has. Is it the introduction of characters? Is it a cliff hanging or mind bending qoute? Is it a hint of some sorts? Most importantly: is it able to capture a reader's attention? If that's what the content on the first page conveys I guess it's important.

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0

Not the first page...

The first sentence.

"Call me Ishmael."

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the seas on of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. "

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

Most people judge a book by its cover.

Those who don't will decided if a book is any good after reading the first sentence. (as most don't actually ever get past the first page)

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