Openings are hard. Plain and simple. In that first page, you have a lot to juggle. Bear in mind: My expertise is adult romance and Adult/YA SF/F, so if you write another genre/age, you may have to adjust any advice here for those. (MG? Yeah, I suspect much of this would apply, but I don’t do it. That’s KT’s territory, and she’s welcome to it.)
So let’s break this down: What do we NEED in that first page?
- A sense of whose story this is-We need to have someone immediately we can connect with and care about, and a reason to care about them.
- Some kind of tension-I don’t mean blow up stuff. I mean there needs to be some reason why you’re starting in that spot and not later/earlier.
- A hook-There’s almost always some first line that stands out, that lays the frame for the chapter.
- A feel for the world (Especially important for SF/F)-You should be able to pick it up and, in the first page, know what genre the book is. I’d suggest picking 10+ books in your specific subgenre and just reading the first page to best see this in action.
So I’m going to highlight each of these using a book: In this case, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, because I adore it and I think it does this VERY well. (Note: This is 259 words, 9 words over a proper “First page”, but I was finishing off the sentence.)
It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
This is your hook and tension in one. We immediately have a feel that the stakes here are fatal, and it makes us want to know WHY. What is it about the first of November that means someone will die, and WHO will it be?
Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: Dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever –changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.
This is entirely description, but it’s active description. The word choices here combine with the rhythm-Dark blue and black and brown, rather than Dark blue, black, and brown makes a difference. The rhythm of the words mimics a horse’s trot. There’s contrasts here as well. Brightest sun/colors of the night.
They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.
More contrasts, and reiteration of the stakes. NOTE: To here, we’re getting the descriptions through the eyes of a character we haven’t been introduced to yet. This lens effect is HARD to pull off without the transition being jarring. This is advanced craft. We know it’s from Sean’s POV only from the SEAN label up top.
This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it is like to be warm and what a full night’s sleep feels like and what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across yards of sand.
Now we start meeting Sean in earnest. Note the immediate sensory grounding: My cheeks, my thighs, my arms- all once again using rhythm and repetition to create this feeling of movement. We also, from the sense of him being an incredible hard worker, have a reason here to care about him. He wants this, whatever this is, badly.
I am so, so alive.
Setting this line apart, in it’s own paragraph, contrasts it with the first line. Someone is going to die, and Sean is so, so alive, we immediately fear it will be him.
As I head down to the cliffs with my father, one of the race officials stops me. He says, “Sean Kendrick, you are ten years old. You haven’t discovered it yet, but there are more interesting ways to die than on this beach.”
This reinforces the idea that Sean may die, and gives us more context. We now know he’s 10, with his father, and about to ride in a race that has a good chance of killing him.
My father doubles back and takes the official’s upper arm as if the man were a restless horse. They share a brief exchange about age restrictions during the race. My father wins.
This gives a small sense of how Sean views his father, still relating it to the horses. You might be tempted here to show more of the argument, I mean, it is an argument, after all! But sometimes, it’s more powerful to use a broad stroke to keep the pacing tight.
“If your son is killed,” the official says, “the only fault is yours.”
Now, maybe it’s because I used to work with kids, but it shows a certain callous disregard here. Perhaps the people on this beach are not altruistic. This makes us wonder WHY, again. This is clearly not a contemporary fiction novel, no fluffy romance. Again, we wonder if Sean is going to die when we’ve just met him.
My father doesn’t even answer him, just leads his uisce stallion away.
Uisce? Too many vowels for most kinds of horses I know of, short of Appaloosa. The unfamiliar term underscores the fantastic element here.
OK so obviously, a NY Times best selling author is a hard one to compare yourself to. This has also been edited to get it to the spit shine you see here.
So you want something that’s not, but does the same thing? This is a rough draft of my own, (note: ROUGH draft. I’ve done a couple light passes to try to get the voice on it, but don’t judge me too harshly on this one. This is a draft I JUST finished a couple weeks before #Pitchwars started, and I haven’t had time to edit it properly).
Whispers wake me in the morning, just as the sun begins to glow against the horizon.
Hook. We want to know who is whispering. (And no, you shouldn’t start a story with a character waking up, but that’s something I’ll be fixing in edits. I tend to word vomit my first scenes when the idea for the story hits, before I’ve even outlined.)
I lay in my hammock just a moment more, wrapped in my blanket, trying to decide if the whispers are part of my dream or just my brother Barung trying to wheedle an early breakfast. Definitely dreams, as they fade the moment I open my eyes. I yawn and slip from one net to another down onto the nearly silent deck, the only sounds seventy people breathing overhead, 2 of them snoring, and the soft calls of the watch. The bamboo deck is cold against my feet, but I’m used to that. There must have been fog overnight, the glow lamps are still lit. I glance at the rest of the ships strung like beads by the giant nets that trawl between us, catching shark and fish alike. Their watches wave at me, used to my early risings. I wave back, slipping down the rope ladder over the edge. I grab a rope line and hang on as I slide into the ocean. The water is warm against my skin and for a moment there’s nothing but me and the sea’s voice in my ears, echoing my dream-whispers.
I still need to polish the tone here (Definitely sticks out to me as out of place,) but this sets the world solidly as fantasy, with enough sensory to make you feel like you’re on a boat, but not a boat like any you may have taken. You should get a sense of the size of these ships, and that this is her normal. The whispers too add an element of tension-We want to know what is talking to her-Voices in her head, telepathy, gods? Who knows at this point, but it is important that they are here, and now. Word choice wise, I can be more specific here-giant is vague, for example, maybe I can figure out something useful to use for scale, like the ships themselves. Referencing her brother here is deliberate, as a lot of her choices are driven by her urge to protect her brother and sister. We’ll meet him properly in the next scene. But again, gives us a reason to relate to her. She’s also isolated here, though clearly not by anger or fear. Alone but accepted, basically.
Something is coming. It lurks out of reach, but I reach on the wind and waves to try to grasp it.
Tension is reiterated here. You should get a feel that there’s some sort of magic or other paranormal element going on by now.
“Are you insane? You should have waited for me!” Makir’s voice breaks me from my trance, and I wince. She’s my best friend, but she’s always the reasonable one. She could be Hawhna someday and lead the Natha fleets, if she doesn’t nag everyone to death first.
I deliberately ended here, because it contrasts with the above, jolting it out of that smoother lyricism it had slipped into. It’s a bit telling, I’ll have to find a better way to explain who Makir is to the MC (which, note-You don’t get her name in this part, but a couple paragraphs later. Probably by the time I finish editing, she’ll have her name in the first 250 ish words). There’s unfamiliar terms here too, but you should be able to use context clues to figure out Hawhna is a leader type roll, and with the reference earlier to the ships, that these people are called the Natha.
Now, armed with that, and hopefully not laughing too hard at my rough draft, take a look at your first 250-300 words. Can you break out the same kinds of patterns in yours? If not, look for ways to use word choice, rhythm, and flow to GROUND the opening, SHOW a character, and give us a reason to CARE about what is happening to them. HOOK us on the TENSION and let us FEEL the world.
More craft-focused posts will be coming up next week. 😉