When I peruse my local bookstore for my next purchase, there’s a process I use to decide how to spend my hard-earned dollars.
First, the cover. Does it attract my eyes? Is the title easily discernable over the colors and images?
Next, the back cover. How well does the back-cover blurb pull me into the main points of the story or theme of the book?
Finally, I open the book and read the first page. Does it make me want to read more? Do those few hundred words entice me to keep reading?
Inspire Christian Writers recently had a First Page contest. I was impressed with how well some of the entries were able to grab my attention from just one page. So what are the elements to include on the first page of a manuscript?
First, a nonfiction book should set the expectation that the journey I’m about to embark upon is something that resonates with where I am. For instance, in The Caregiving Season, I let readers know that as a Baby Boomer, if they find themselves caring for an aging parent, it’s probably a shock. (Continued from the first paragraph of the book)
Then Mom fell, or Dad developed dementia, and everything changed. You never expected to be tethered to your parents. Neither did I.
Here are the elements that will grab the seeker’s attention:
- A hint at what the reader can expect
- A guide to help navigate the churning waters of caregiving
Here’s another example from an older book, the story written by former US Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop on the death of his twenty-one-year-old son.
It is almost impossible to set down in writing how we felt. Even as we try to do so now, there is a recurrence of that first awful numbness, as well as of the actual physical pain our bodies endured as we let the words of the dean race through our minds over and over again. It was absolutely impossible that David was dead; yet we were assuring one another that this was indeed the case.
Did this grab my attention? You bet. As someone who has also lost a child, this first page was poignant and spot-on to the myriad of emotions I experienced. I had to read on.
Fiction is a bit different. That first page has to more than hint of a great story to be unfolded. Here are the first couple of paragraphs from Francine Rivers’ book, The Masterpiece:
Roman Velasco climbed the fire escape and swung over the wall onto the flat roof. Crouching, he moved quickly. Another building abutted the five-story apartment house, the perfect location for graffiti. Right across the street was a bank building, and he’d already left a piece on the front door.
Shrugging off his backpack, he pulled out his supplies. He’d have to work fast. Los Angeles never slept. Even at three in the morning, cars sped along the boulevard.
This piece would be seen by anyone driving east. He’d be at risk until he finished, but dressed in black pants and a hooded sweatshirt, he’d be hard to spot, unless someone were looking for him.
Let’s unpack these first few paragraphs:
- The location is established without resorting to ‘telling.’ Notice she didn’t say “Roman lived in Los Angeles, California.” Instead, she used, “Los Angeles never slept.” The question in my mind was ‘why is this guy out at three in the morning, perched on the side of a building?’
- Rivers never said, “Roman wore black.” Instead, she gave us the description through the eyes of an observer: “He’d be hard to spot.”
- If you keep reading, which I did, you’ll see that Roman is a daredevil. Not only is he spraying graffiti on buildings, he practically dares law enforcement to catch him. Why? That’s the one big thing for Page One of a manuscript.
So how can you make the first page of your manuscript fantastic?
- Establish place. I’ve seen too many manuscripts begin without a clear picture of where it is taking place. Is your main character in a prison cell, a beautiful garden, a scary basement? Don’t make the reader guess.
- Use emotion. How does your main character feel about his location? Is he disdainful or grieved over the beautiful garden? Perhaps he or she is lamenting the choices that led him or her to prison.
- Don’t overlook the five senses. What does your main character smell, taste, and feel? Don’t just tell, show. I use a great reference, The Emotion Thesaurus to help me use body movements to show how a character is feeling.
- Use dialogue to show rather than tell. For example, this is the opening dialog from The Advocate’s Killer by Teresa Burrell:
Attorney Sabre Brown stopped outside Courtroom One and opened the text she’d just received. An image of a bloody body made her gasp. A man lay on the sidewalk, battered and broken.
“Oh, my God!”
“What is it?” asked Bob Clark, her best friend and colleague.
Sabre handed him her phone.
Bob studied the photo.” We know this guy.”
“What?” Sabre leaned in to see the photo again.
Bob took a closer look. “He sure looks like that social worker… what’s his name?”
“I don’t know. All I saw was a lot of blood and a contorted body.”
Bob held the phone out for Sabre. “Look, isn’t he a social worker? You know – your friend from that trial you just had.”
Ms. Burrell has established place, the main character’s occupation, emotion, and attention-grabbing dialog. I’m hooked.
Practice writing your first page. Ask your critique group or writing partners if your opening paragraphs make them want to read more. Entice your readers with sprinkles of what is to come and you’ll keep them reading on and on.
I recommend a couple of resources. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, and Writer Unboxed August 13, 2020 blog post, Hook and Inciting Incident – The Power Couple of the “Must Read Now.”