Attend virtually any conference on writing and someone will insist the first page is paramount. You must hook the reader. I’d heard the idea enough, and struggled with nailing a great first page on many a project, but it wasn’t until my MFA that I took the time to analyze what I thought was a good first page. While doing an editing internship with Hunter Liguore, editor at American Athenaeum, I was charged with reading 34 first pages (without knowing the author or title) and deciding which ones I would accept, as an editor, and which I would decline. It was very informative, and I encourage you to try it out. Discovering what magical recipe for first page elements I was most hooked by has helped me figure out what my own first pages lacked. Here’s a sample of questions that I came up with from a few of the samples:
Is there too much emphasis on setting?
If the character isn’t very fleshed out, does the story premise fill in the gaps?
What kind of tension was there?
Were the questions raised unique and so enticing I had to read on?
Does the description feel connected to the character?
Is there dialog? What does it show about the characters?
Ultimately, I learned that I connect most with the people, the characters. Any other element had to serve them. If it didn’t– for example, if there was a lot of description about a ritual but not about the characters–then I wasn’t interested. I writes stories about people (arguably every writer does), so I need to make sure each of my first pages highlights the characters and their struggles, their connect to place, their sense of the world.
Try this exercise with books you’ve already read. Or take ten books from your to read shelf and read only the first pages. If you could only pick one to read further (pretend you’re an editor with a limited list), which one would it be and why? Or read the latest Flogging A Pro, a post on Writer Unboxed that takes first pages from a variety of genres and analyzes them in a similar same way. I imagine most of you read or write picture books, but I think the exercise can be helpful there too. It’s a lot of fun!
If you’re a reader, and not a writer, asking these questions can help you discern what it is you’re looking for in story, in general, and help you find better books to read for ourselves and your children.