Friday, April 15, 2011

Awesome First Pages!

So you have to hook your reader in the first few pages--especially as a debut author.  And really, if you can, you should try to hook them with the very first line.

UPDATE: I'm at a conference so I will do a post on Monday with a few great third person POV and literary fiction examples. It's true that third person is harder to show voice but it's still necessary.

Your first page should:

  1. Establish your character and the voice
  2. Establish the conflict and begin moving the story forward (ie plot)
  3. Establish the tone (Dark? Fluffy beach read?)
  4. Establish indication of the setting: (If it’s paranormal/fantasy/sci fi/historical, we should get a sense of this from the first pages)


*BONUS POINTS* for
Catching the reader off guard!

If your first lines can cause your reader to sit up closer and pay more attention, that’s what it means to effectively grab them or hook.


Alice Sebold is a MASTER at this.  Look at The Lovely Bones and her memoir Lucky, those first lines are brilliant.

Once you grab your readers with their first page, you're set. Now you’ll just have to keep them there.

Once I started reading a manuscript on the way home from work. I was on the train, and I booted up the kindle and started reading, and after a few lines, I literally sat up straighter and paid more attention. It was that good. (that manuscript was by Dan Krokos, by the way). That's what you want.

Some great examples:

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell
(first, if you haven't read this yet, you must, seriously. Stop and go buy it right now.)

The first line: "So I'm on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me!"

The first page hooks in readers and works because it totally establishes the voice. One of the best things (of many) about Beat the Reaper is the way Dr. Peter Brown's voice jumps off the page.  And the fact that he's not exactly your typical doctor.  The language, descriptions, and tone, all tell us within the first page that he's a guy you don't want to mess with--and a guy who we're going to be willing to follow.

You by Charles Benoit
(again, this is a book everyone should read)

The first line: "You're surprised at all the blood."

The first page hooks in readers and works because despite the unique storytelling (the book is written in second person POV), it establishes a mystery--something tense within the first scene, that will pull readers all the way through the book until the end where they'll find out what actually happened in that first scene.  And of course, it's not at all what they'll be expecting.

Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost
(another one of my favorites!)

The first line: "I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck."

The first page hooks in readers and works because we're introduced to our heroine, who comes across as an anti hero. (She has a body in her truck bed). But it also establishes the paranormal aspect of the novel. (The body is a dead vampire). Also within the first two pages, we understand a lot about our protagonist, the town she lives in, and her extracurricular activities.


For writers, this means...

You have essentially two goals in your first page.
  1. Create Interest
  2. Create Investment
You want your readers to be interested in where your story is going and invested in the characters who are going to be on that journey with them.

So again, feel free to send your first 250 words to firstpageshooter@gmail.com for your chance to be critiqued.  The first critiques will go up next week!

23 comments:

Tere Kirkland said...

This was one of the best explanations of what a first page should do, and the examples are all perfect.

Thanks, Suzie!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I picked up 7 YA contemporary books last night to try out your suggestion.

One started with action. Three started with back story and introspection (same author). And three began with just introspection.

I pulled more books off the shelf. Same thing. Within the first paragraph or two, they began with introspection and not action. This was a huge shocker. I've never noticed this before. But in each case, the introspection was short and hookie enough to grab my attention and keep me reading.

Now I'm reworking my beginning (after I analyze more books). Thanks for the advice. :D

Melissa Dean said...

I went to your workshop in October and it was the best two hours I've spent at a conference EVER. I learned so much and these examples really hit home.

If anyone gets a chance to go to a workshop Suzie Townsend is doing, please go!

Reece said...

Any suggestions for how to do this better in 3rd person? I feel like it's harder to come up with catchy first lines in 3rd person.

Peace, Lena and Happiness said...

I'm looking forward to the critiques. I find it hard to establish voice in 3rd person in the first paragraph, especially if it starts with action.

I'm going to read this to my writer's group--we could all benefit. Thanks for the great post.

Travener said...

Yes, this is a big deal. On the other hand, you can definitely overdo it, wanting to be *too* memorable/unique. (Like I know what I'm talking about.)

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I sent mine--what a great way to get a feel for what we're doing right (and wrong, of course). Thanks for the opportunity!

Zan Marie said...

Great examples and lots of food for thought. I've got to sample a few openers now with this in mind.

baryshnitsa said...

Does the same apply if you're writing a more literary type of fiction? I like to think I always do establish (to the best of my ability) a sense of character and place in the beginning of my books, though since I grew up on the older, longer books, I'm not in the habit of immediately starting a conflict or problem. I always liked best the books where characters, settings, and storylines are gradually developed and foreshadowed, so that we're really emotionally invested in what does happen to them by the time the fireworks start at page 50 or 100 or whenever.

Stacy said...

Very insightful post. I agree about the 3rd person observation - it does seem to be a little harder. All of these examples were amazing and great reference points.

Mardel said...

I love when the first page pulls me into a story. I've bought books based on the first few pages....and yet...once in a while the book just goes down hill from there. :(

So now I read the first few pages, and check out a few in the middle of the book. Because it's sad when I think I'm going to enjoy a book and the rest of the book reads nothing like the beginning. Thank goodness, this doesn't happen with all the books.

Kimberly said...

Thank you for all the great info. I'm looking forward to your post on Monday.

5b26d3e6-67e3-11e0-911f-000bcdcb471e said...

Thanks for this, one question: I get establishing a time/place/situation and hook right away. But for something like urban fantasy or paranormal, is it critical to establish that's what the environment is in the first page? What about the idea that despite the action, at first things seem to be of the 'normal' world. The paranormal/fantasy unfolds as more of the situation is revealed in the first few chapters. No?

Bryce Daniels said...

Great advice! And fitting that it would be given so concisely. I can't say it enough. Thank you so much for volunteering your time and helping us get our manuscripts into shape. Now if I can just get my doctor on board...

careann said...

I haven't read Lucky yet, but loved The Lovely Bones. Thanks for the recommendations and helpful information.

Carol Garvin

Jeff King said...

Great points… thx for taking the time to share them.

I look forward to growing from your advice.

Maeya said...

Hope I wasn't too late - I just saw this post and sent in my page. Would love some feedback. ;-)
Connie

Phil Hall said...

I look forward to being ripped a royal new one ... :)

Donea Lee said...

Thank you, Suzie, for some great advice! I will definitely keep these tips in mind.

The only thing I question, however, is that your examples all seem to be of the dark/edgy variety. I guess I struggle with how to get a kick-in-the-gut opening with a story that's lighter in tone? Can this be accomplished through voice and character alone, before the action really starts, and still make an agent sit up and take notice? Any tips?

Thanks!

Becky Wallace said...

Thanks for the advice. How do you feel about starting with dialouge?

Jason Kenney said...

Local B&N had Beat The Reaper as a bargain book. Your post made me give it a look. The first page hooked me. Easy purchase.

suzie townsend said...

@Travener--you're right. You don't want to be unique for the sake of being unique. It has to fit.

@baryshnitsa--I understand. What you have to keep in mind is that to get readers emotionally invested and keep them reading until they get to page 50 or 100, there has to be something at the beginning to catch their interest and suck them in. Unfortunately the people who pick up a book and read it to the end even if they're not in love with it in the beginning, those people are few and far between (I know, I used to be one of them. Then I got into publishing)

@Mardel--I know the feeling! It's always disappointing when a book starts strong and then fizzles.

@ that long string of numbers -- You don't always need to establish the environment in the first page, but it's great if there are hints to it. Ideally every sentence is going to establish character and world, and push the plot forward.

@careann--Lucky is brilliant. Definitely a must read.

@Donea--Look at some of the books comparable to yours in terms of genre to get some ideas.

@Becky--that can definitely work (Courtney Summers did it in CRACKED UP TO BE and it totally worked) but you don't want the dialogue to be a huge chunk. It's going to work better if it's concise.

@Jason--It's an awesome book. I promise.

Martha Ramirez said...

Awesome post! Thanks.

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Five Random Things About Suzie

1. I drink so much orange soda, it's probably running through my veins. I've been known to go through a twelve pack of diet sunkist in a day.

2. I'm legitimately nocturnal (or a vampire). I will be so exhausted at two pm that I'm falling asleep standing up - it has happened before, at Six Flags no less - but as soon as the sun goes down I'm wide awake.

3. I have a gorgeous unused $6000 Reem Acra wedding dress hanging in my closet, and it showed up on my doorstep the same day my (now ex) fiance broke up with me. And thank God for that. I wouldn't have wanted to waste that dress on him.

4. Social anxiety plagues me daily. I write a script and practice in front of the mirror when I have to make a phone call, but most people who interact with me have no idea how nervous I am (or perhaps they lie) because I've worked so hard to try to overcome it.

5. I'm actually worried that I will never love my children (when I do have them in the far off future) as much as I love my dogs. I just like animals better than people - they're sweet and innocent and soft and furry - is that so wrong?