That First Page

“That first page” is probably the hardest thing there is for writers to deal with. When it is time to start that “next” story, we sit staring at “that first page,” trying to decide what to do with it. Sometimes we just want to write “Once upon a time,” and hope that great idea strikes us then and there. But in today’s time, we need something more catchy than “once upon a time.”

We are told “that first page” can make or break us, and it truly has done both to a lot of writers.There are readers who will judge your book by “that first page,” and if you lose them there, you’re doomed. Or, if you totally catch their attention, they will likely buy your next book, as long as what follows “that first page” doesn’t disappoint them.

It isn’t easy to find just the right words for “that first page,” let alone the words for the first line. That, too, is important. But sometimes it takes a full first page to hook your reader. Most readers will give you at least that much if you don’t grab them with the first line.

The biggest problem with how to start your book is that sometimes things need to happen before you get to the real hook for a line or page. The author has to figure out how to get to that defining moment without leaving out important story events. Just always remember the READER, and that you want something that will quickly get them involved in your story.

I usually get to the good stuff right away – something that makes for a good first line or a “first page” that pulls the reader into the story. I can always find a way to give the reader more details about that event later in the book. Ninety-Nine percent of the time, the things I think I need to write first, as a build-up to my “hook,”end up being unnecessary after all. It’s important to find other ways to tell the back story that led up to what happens on “that first page” than to bore the reader with it at the beginning of the story. Telling back story later also makes for more active writing from there on, as the hero or heroine, through action and dialogue, gradually explain how he or she reached that point and ended up in that dire situation with which you opened your story. 

In my book PARADISE VALLEY, the story opens with Maggie Tucker digging a grave for her husband. How did he die? Why is she alone in the middle of Wyoming? No one knows at first. Readers wonder those things, and they keep reading to find out. The first chapter of my story ends with Maggie collapsing after a stranger (the hero, of course) comes along and offers to help. So by the end of Chapter 1, the reader has been introduced to both the hero and heroine, and in a way that makes them wonder about both characters and makes them want to read more. Then, as the story progresses and they get to know each other, Maggie reveals what happened, while at the same time we learn more about the hero.

I could have started PARADISE VALLEY with Maggie on her way to Oregon with her husband when they are attacked by outlaws, but I kept thinking how much more mysterious and interesting it would be to open my story with Maggie digging her husband’s grave. Plus, telling too much too soon would have brought Maggie’s husband into the picture, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted all the attention to be on the hero, who comes along later to help Maggie. I didn’t want to give my readers a third character to have on their minds or to feel sorry for. Yes, he was Maggie’s husband, but he was not important to the story, strange as that sounds.

In my newest book, LOGAN’S LADY, (March 2019 – Sourcebooks) the story starts with the heroine (who lives with her wealthy older brother in London) involved in a huge family argument that keeps you reading to learn what it’s about and how it will be resolved. In that first chapter the reader learns a lot about the heroine’s rather brave and daring personality, and it ends with her deciding she will leave London and go to America. By then I have set the reader up to wonder what will happen when she gets there.

Chapter Two introduces rugged, ruthless, rather unkempt Logan Best, an American bounty hunter with no real home. He drops a dead body onto the floor in a sheriff’s office and asks for the bounty on the man. His attitude is, “Here he is. He was wanted dead or alive and dead was easier.”

Here I took TWO chapters to really capture my readers. The first one hooks them, the second one reels them in because they just KNOW the lovely, educated, sophisticated “Lady” from London is going to end up somehow mixed up with the rugged, ill-mannered, uneducated Logan Best, and the pairing is going to be very interesting, let alone humorous. For the first half of the book, one chapter follows Lady Elizabeth, and the next follows Logan, back and forth as each character takes an exciting path that readers can tell will lead to the inevitable “clash” of personalities and culture. There is a lot of great humor in this book, as well as adventure and, of course, romance.

You do not necessarily need a first line that “hooks” your readers, but it should at least hint at what’s to come; and by the end of that first page, what’s to come should be pretty darn obvious. Most readers will stick with the book through the first chapter, so by then make sure you have made it pretty clear where your story is going, and that it’s going to be exciting.

As a writer, don’t spend too much time fretting over “that first page.” Just consider what is most exciting about how your story begins, and even if something has to happen before that, get to the good stuff and find a way to cover the pre-events after you have your readers hooked. Sometimes you can include those events, but don’t dwell on them for pages and pages.

“That first page” can be a real challenge, I know, but remember the READER at all times. Pretend you are the reader. Where would you like the story to start in order to make you want to keep reading?

In the book I just started writing for Sourcebooks (the first in a trilogy of books set against the Outlaw Trail) the story opens with the heroine, who is lost and hungry and thirsty and alone in a wild, untamed western landscape, coming upon a gang of men about to hang a man. She ducks down out of sight, not sure what to do.

Immediately the readers will wonder - Who is the man about to be hanged? Who are the other men, and can they be trusted? Are they good, or are they outlaws? And how did the heroine end up wandering alone in lawless country without food and water? How can she possibly help the man about to be hanged? And should she help him at all? Maybe he deserves it. Either way, it’s a terrible thing to see, and when the other men ride off while the hanged man’s feet are still kicking, the heroine, of course, decides she has to do something to relieve the hanged man’s agony.

Is he worth saving? Is he truly guilty of something terrible? Or is he an innocent man who’s just been robbed? (The other men ride off with his cattle.)

This opening leaves a lot of questions readers will want answered, so they will keep reading to find out who the man is, and also – what led the heroine to the situation in which she finds herself. And, of course, will she be able to save the man? She is driven not only by a desire to help his awful suffering, but also by the fact that his accusers left the man’s horse and supplies behind when they rode off – things the heroine needs to survive.

Just always remember – “That first page” needs some kind of hook, and that the best way to start your book is with that first exciting event that leaves an opening for all kinds of exciting story that in turn, KEEPS THE PAGES TURNING! And good luck with your “first page!”


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