Six Must-Haves that Belong in Your First Page

Your first page needs to contain six must-have factors that pull readers into the story and propel them to turn the page. In this blog post I’ll discuss the six things you need in your first page to create a strong story opening so that you have a better chance of drawing readers in and keeping them engaged in your story.

First Page Must Haves | Kate Johnston | Writing Coach | Editor

What genre is this story?

Genre tells us what kind of story we’re reading. If we want to write a romance, then you need to show elements of romance on page one. This means that you need to have a clear understanding of genre conventions and what readers will expect to sink their teeth into.

Experienced writers with an established audience have some leeway because their fans trust that they’ll get a great reading experience, no matter how it’s delivered. Beginning writers or writers who are still building their tribe will need to stick a bit closer to the rules/guidelines.

What is this story about?

This is where our fun little loglines come into play. You need to have a one-sentence description of your book that tells your readers (and potential agent and/or publisher) the main conflict of your story.

Generally speaking, readers don’t randomly decide on a book to read. They pick books according to genre, recommendation, or some other specific reason that tells them this book would be a good match. Often, the blurbs on the back covers are a selling point. If what we read on page one doesn’t align with what we were promised on the back cover, then we will be disappointed and likely stop reading.

Some writers construct loglines into two sentences. If you can drill down your story into one sentence, then that means you are crystal clear on what your book is about and you will have a much smoother ride developing it.

Who is telling this story?

Who is the main character? You may have multiple protagonists, which is fine. But you’re not going to introduce them all in your first page. So, which one needs to stand out the most? Which one has the most interesting story to tell? Who has the most to lose? Be sure you’ve picked your strongest candidate to tell the story.

Yes, your main character needs to appear on page one. Even if you’re writing a fantasy or sci fi that requires a lot of world-building. Get your main character into the action on page one so that your reader has someone to hook into right away.

Where & when does the story take place?

Setting. So important. But sometimes difficult to wrangle and contain, especially if we’re dealing with intricate world-building. Stating outright the time and place in the text can be a bit too clinical, but it does depend on the story and how you want to deliver it.

Some writers like to put those two pieces of information in the chapter heading, which helps establish the setting from the get-go. Another option is to allow your writing skills to deliver the setting through description and/or character thoughts/dialogue, or through the character’s experience. This method allows mood and conflict to flow through, which are tremendously valuable in story set-up.

Reader’s emotional reaction

How do you want your reader to feel when they’re starting your story? If they’ve read the back cover blurb, then they’re going to have some initial expectations. Think about how you can capitalize on those in your first page so that your reader is invested. This has to do with connecting or relating to your main character in the specific setting engaged in some kind of conflict. You have fewer than 250 words to work with on your first page, so aim for one emotion and go all out to snag it.

Why should your reader care?

Your reader will not continue with your story if they don’t care what happens next. There are just too many books vying for our attention these days. What makes yours special? What makes yours different from all the rest? Why should your reader turn to page 2?

It all starts with the opening action on page one. The opening action (your main character engaged in conflict in the middle of a specific setting) is the starting point of your plot. Think about how that reflects what your story is about and how it will lead us into the bigger story (basically, how it will encourage us to turn to page 2).

 

Crank out your story opening with these six must-haves. Obviously, on the storytelling level we will rely on other elements to help bring the story to life, such as dialogue, additional characters, or scene (versus narrative). As long as you can pull forth these six must-haves then you are holding up to your readers’ expectations and on your way to a truly engaging story!

What happens in your story opening? Do you have these six must-haves? What do you like to encounter on the first page of a book you’re reading?

4 thoughts on “Six Must-Haves that Belong in Your First Page”

  1. Interesting how you can narrow it down to six variables! I’ve never thought about this, yet now that you’ve written about it here I suppose I’ll be applying this paradigm to the first page of every book I read. I like it. Very clever.

    Reply
    • Thanks! I would be shocked if you find all six in every book you read, frankly! I feel that these are expected, at least on a subconscious level, but not every book will need all six–especially books written by authors who don’t need to pad the first page with anything other than their name, if you know what I mean! 🙂

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  2. I’m trying to think whether my first page has these six elements… That’s a tough delivery, but totally makes sense. I don’t think I have the “when” and “where” covered, but the book is written in the present tense, to have the reader come along… no matter the time and place or the mystery around it. And, does the first page apply to the prologue or the first chapter??

    Reply
    • I think most writers have these variables without even realizing it. They’re a natural part of storytelling–whether or not they all make it into the first page is the big question!

      When/Where are still important to help ground the reader, no matter what tense you use. Present tense doesn’t automatically mean the story is taking place in the 21st century. The reader will come along even if you use past tense as long as the story is engaging! 🙂

      Prologues are tricky, depending on who you ask. I consider the first page to be the first page of the first chapter. A prologue can be a hit or miss in a lot of ways because they aren’t considered essential. Some would say a prologue offers important background information that sets up the main conflict. The argument to that is then that means the first chapter hasn’t done its job well enough. It really comes down to the kind of story you’re telling, as it’s a question only to be answered on an individual basis.

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