6 Tips To Hook A Reader on Page One

I’ve read thousands of “page ones.” Very often I don’t read page two.

Sometimes all I read is that first page and I make judgements based on what I see there. As an agent and a reader my practice is that if I’m not connecting with the material I move on–and quickly.

I wish I had time to give writers (and their books) more of a chance but I can tell a lot by one page: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice, and writing talent–yes, usually all from one page. Five at the most.

So how are you supposed to get us past one page?

6 Tips To Hook A Reader on Page One

1. Learn how to balance what readers need to know vs. what you, as the writer, want to tell us. I can sense a writer who is trying to show off very quickly. It really only takes one paragraph to see that. A command of language is knowing how to write for your audience, not showing off how you can set a scene with a vocabulary that your reader can’t connect with. Showing off isn’t going to win readers over. It’s going to make the decision to walk away very easy. All the reader needs to know is who has a secret (see more at point 3). This tip is all about going back and editing your first page over and over again. Polished, but not so shiny that we think we’re reading a magazine ad.

2. Learn what “start with action” really means. We’re not asking every writer to start their book with a car crash. In fact, most shouldn’t! What we’re asking is to make sure that your book starts in a place where plot is happening, not merely an introduction to the scene or characters. The longer you take to drop some hints the more confused we are and that encourages people to put down the book. Action means movement of some kind: start of a conflict, effects of a previous conflict, or dialogue about new/existing conflict.

3. Let us know who has secrets; keep the reader curious. Every character must have a secret. It is linked to their stakes and why they must achieve their goal. Don’t underestimate the power of a secret. It could be something as small as what they were embarrassed by last week or something as big as a major mistake at work. And read this PubCrawlBlog post to learn more. Remember that characters need to feel like they had a life before we entered their world via the book, and that they’ll have an interesting life afterwards too.

4. Be wary of information dumps. The number one killer of a page one: more didactic text and backstory then we could possibly need. Instead of information dumping on us (remember we’re joining you at this exact moment–so what do we need to know to enjoy this moment as it stands?) try things like dialogue instead. Dialogue is a great way to get plot moving while introducing us to your world. If you’re tempted to give us more backstory or facts than we need (I don’t need to know where your character is from, their hair colour, or their sibling order) remember that there is a reason you started your book in this place and it should relate to the fact that their life changes in this instant. No facts are needed if you start in the right place.

5. Introduce characters on a need-to-know basis. There’s nothing more confusing than reading more than 3 or 4 names on page 1. Not only is it hard to keep straight the names themselves, I’m also thoroughly confused about which name matches which voice especially in dialogue. Be careful to only mention characters we need to know at that time. That will prevent the reader from putting down your book before we’ve even begun because they feel they can’t keep up.

6. Never assume a reader is going to finish your first page, first chapter, or whole book. Free time is a luxury these days. When a reader picks up a book that’s a huge statement about how they spend their free time. Dedicating 8-10 hours to your writing should never be assumed. So if you keep that in mind as you write and edit you’ll be in great shape to keep the pace moving and stakes high.

Perfect Characters as Default: Why this is problematic

Once Upon A Time pencilThe number of pitches, synopses or opening lines I’ve seen like this is outstanding:

[Your character’s] life was simple, quiet and perfect…until it wasn’t.

I’m being dramatic, but perfection as a default is firstly boring, and secondly I want to know where the humanity is, not the godliness.

Think about these tips instead:

  • I assume that we’re meeting your character at an interesting time in their life (or why else would you be starting the book here?): so get to telling us about it! Cut your opening line about perfection and ask yourself the tough questions: what is it the deep-rooted source of conflict for your troubled character.
  • Instead of your character being perfect (because no one is!) tell me about their background in struggle. For example: what made them blind to asking questions about their life or blind to the conflict that’s about to come in the next 80k words? What makes THIS moment the moment when things changed?
  • Just like people, we can’t assume characters had no life before we meet them. Your characters should feel so rich that they had lives before we start to read about them on the page.
  • If you think your character’s life was perfect before the (real or metaphorical) asteroid hit their world then I don’t believe you’re thinking deeply enough about their backstory.
  • Challenge yourself to think about your characters as living before and after the book is done. If you need help, use this blog post: 30 Questions to Ask Your Main Character. Or this funny one.

The Makings of a Captivating Prologue: Skill, suspense, backstory and plot

I’ve touched on how not to write a prologue, but today I want to lay out the makings of a really striking prologue. A lot of writing blogs tell you ‘what not to do’, which is always subjective in itself, so let’s explore a great prologue and see why it works.

Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (his prologue can be read under ‘read an excerpt’ on his website here) is the story of when the Rapture hits Mapleton:

“What if the Rapture happened and you got left behind? Or what if it wasn’t the Rapture at all, but something murkier, a burst of mysterious, apparently random disappearances that shattered the world in a single moment, dividing history into Before and After, leaving no one unscathed? How would you rebuild your life in the wake of such a devastating event?

This is the question confronting the bewildered citizens of Mapleton, a formerly comfortable suburban community that lost over a hundred people in the Sudden Departure.

Through the prism of a single family, Perrotta illuminates a familiar America made strange by grief and apocalyptic anxiety. The Leftovers is a powerful and deeply moving book about people struggling to hold onto a belief in their own futures.”

Now, to the prologue. Perrotta’s prologue works on a few different levels: we are introduced to major characters; the themes are established; and the setting is intriguing. So why does this work and so many prologues don’t?

1. Quality of writing Continue reading

The Dreaded Prologue

Can readers coming to your work for the first time get past your prologue?

Fact: Prologues in fiction should be avoided.

This may be unpopular advice but there are reasons why agents and editors alike refrain from keeping prologues once they begin working on material.

  1. Prologues are often backstory and backstory can be added anywhere.
  2. They can be distracting when the reader doesn’t know the characters yet and so the reader may skip it entirely.
  3. Prologues often show that the writer doesn’t know where to start the story.
  4. If the material in the prologue is important, why isn’t it in the body of the work?
  5. The prologue may turn readers off from the novel before it even gets moving, so why put yourself at a disadvantage?
    Continue reading