So here we are at our very first lecture for Novel Boot Camp! It only makes sense to start at the beginning – the very beginning – the first page of your novel.
If you follow my blog, then you know that I put a lot of stock in first pages. I provide free first page critiques every week in my blog series First Page Friday. I’ve probably written more about first pages and first chapters than anything else. And for a very good reason!
If your first page sucks, you’ve got nothing. Harsh? Maybe. But writing is a tough business. And because I’m an editor and love analogies, I’m going to compare it to another harsh business: the movie business.
Your Submission Package (An Analogy)
Most aspiring writers think of their first page as the setup, the part of the novel that just gets things going, the calm before the storm. This is wrong! All wrong! Your first page needs to open with a bang. It is your audition.
To carry the analogy a bit further:
Your query is your head shot.
Your First Page is your audition.
Your partial/full manuscript is the callback.
Getting published is getting the part.
We don’t have time to get into the query letter or (God forbid) your entire manuscript in this one blog post. So let’s focus on what we came here to focus on this morning: your first page.
The First Page is Your Audition
The goal of an audition is to impress the director with your acting skills. You want to demonstrate that you can handle the script better than anyone else. That you are great at what you do!
If a director likes your audition, it’s because they saw something in you that popped, something they loved. Because of that something, they give you a callback – another chance to convince them that you’re the actor for the job.
In the publishing world, your first page is your audition. It’s your chance to impress agents/editors with what you can do. You must convince them that you are a masterful storyteller of the exact story that you’re telling.
The Partial/Full is the Callback
In the movie business, if a director likes your audition, they give you a callback – a chance to prove that you can live up to your first audition. If you go to the callback and perform completely differently – maybe you put a new spin on the character or add some extra emotional complexity – the director is likely to be disappointed. Why? Because the director wants more of the same, not something different.
In the writing world, the first page is your initial audition. Everything that comes after (whether you send a partial or a full) is your callback. If your novel does not deliver what the first page promised, you’re in trouble. People who loved your first page won’t get what they wanted. And most importantly: the people who would’ve loved your novel won’t read it because the first page isn’t an accurate representation of the whole.
This means that the wrong people will read your novel. You might as well carve its tombstone right now.
Setting the Wrong Tone
The tone is the atmosphere your novel creates for the reader. It’s a sensation in their chest that makes them tense up with excitement or relax into a comforting tale. On the first page, the tone gives the reader an inkling of what to expect from your novel. It should spark an excitement that is supported from page one to the end.
But so many amateur novels set the wrong tone! If you open with a car chase, the reader will expect an action-packed book. If you follow that up with a family saga, the reader will be sorely disappointed. Likewise, a heart-wrenching death scene leading into a superficial comedy will attract all the wrong readers and repel the right ones.
So why do so many amateur novels open with the wrong tone? There are three main reasons:
1. The writer doesn’t know what the tone of their novel is when they first start writing, and after that first draft is complete, they don’t go back to rewrite the beginning.
2. The writer is worried that the logical point at which to open their novel is boring so they craft a more exciting beginning – even if it doesn’t represent their book.
3. The writer is too busy cramming information into the opening to write an interesting and on-tone first chapter.
Dreams, Prologues, Flashbacks, and Other False Promises
If your novel opens with a dream, prologue, or flashback there is a very good chance that you are opening with a false promise (and fall under group 2 in the list above).
These openings are often used as a way to make the first pages of the novel seem more exciting than they really are. Rather than crafting an awesome first chapter, it’s easier to write an exciting dream, prologue, or flashback to draw the reader into the story and then cross your fingers that they sludge through the boring opening that follows (the one you were trying to hide with the dream/flashback/prologue in the first place).
This is why writing advice across the web will tell you to avoid dreams, prologues, and flashbacks in your opening chapter. It is not because these things are inherently wrong, it’s because they are tools often used to deliver a false promise.
If your book makes sense without your prologue, dream, flashback, or any other device used to create a more engaging opening, you are probably better off cutting it and rewriting your first chapter.
ETA: Several people have posted in the comments asking if they can keep their prologue. I am not attempting to say that all prologues are bad, simply that prologues can be used to disguise problems with the first chapter. If this doesn’t describe your book, don’t fret over starting with a prologue just because it’s a prologue.
You can test whether your prologue works by asking yourself if both your prologue and your first chapter hold up in the homework section of this post.
“But what about my query letter or back cover blurb? Readers already know what my book is about!”
Both query letters and back cover blurbs are generally terrible at conveying tone. Furthermore, agents/editors rarely trust the writer’s ability to accurately assess and portray their genre and basic plot within a query letter.
Think of your query and blurb like a head shot in the movie business. A head shot is not intended to be used to cast an actor. It is a tool used to determine whether the director wants to give that actor a chance (an audition). It’s a quick peek that allows the director to say, “Oh yes, I love tall, dark, and handsome!” or “No, I need a short, ugly guy.”
The query letter and back cover blurb are your head shots. They’re you saying, “Look how pretty I can be!” But anyone can take a pretty photo or write a pretty query. That doesn’t mean they can act or write a cohesive novel.
If your first page delivers a tone or represents a genre other than what is stated in your blurb or query, you’re unlikely to get readers to stick around.
“But my novel gets better later!”
If you don’t impress readers/agents/editors on page one, there is no later.
A false promise opening is still a false promise even if it accurately represents the last half of your book. The first page must promise something that the entire book can deliver on.
How to Create a Promise You can Keep
Focus on the tone of your novel (creepy, heart-warming, funny, etc.). Come up with ways to integrate this tone into your opening page. But don’t go overboard. You want the novel to steadily build in intensity, so you don’t want the opening scene to be the scariest/most heart-warming/action-packed thing that happens in your book.
But don’t be boring either.
Sound like a tall order? It’s not as hard as you might think. Pick an opening that contains a conflict that is a micro-version of the internal or external central conflict of your novel. For example, if your novel is about a boy learning to be himself, start with a conflict about how he must pretend to not be himself to avoid a bully.
If your novel is about overthrowing an oppressive government, open with the character challenging an oppressive postal worker.
In both of these examples, the writer would have no problem building up the intensity over time, yet the examples aren’t boring either. They tell the reader exactly what to expect from the book, which means the right people are going to read it.
Before you begin, remember that to write a great first page, you must put your absolute best foot forward. This doesn’t mean using a style that isn’t your own or writing a crazy action-packed car chase. It means writing a first page that is the best overall representation of your novel.
Step One: Identify the tone of your novel. If you haven’t done so already, submit your novel’s opening in the Genre Guessing Game workshop to see if you’re conveying the tone you intend.
Step Two: Identify the external and internal conflict. The external conflict is the obstacle/villain/antagonist acting against the main character. The internal conflict is something within the character that is holding them back (usually a character flaw).
Step Three: Consider whether your current opening reflects the overall tone.
If not, brainstorm moments where you can create a stronger atmosphere. Don’t forget that word choice can have a huge impact on the novel’s tone.
Step Four: Consider whether your current opening has a conflict that mirrors the internal or external central conflict.
If your novel does not open with a conflict at all, that’s a good indication that it needs some major rewriting.
Step Four: Depending on your time commitment to Novel Boot Camp, either write a new novel opening or make notes about what to change about the current one.
If you don’t need to make any changes, triumphantly proclaim it in the comments section or on Twitter (#NovelBootCamp) and take today to peruse some of my past writing advice.
If you do need to make changes, let us know in the comments or on Twitter (#NovelBootCamp).
If you need help with your opening or aren’t sure if you need to make changes, post your questions in the comments, on Twitter (#NovelBootCamp), or in the Facebook group.
Additional Resources for a Killer Opening
Want to learn more about opening your novel? Here are my other videos and articles about the first chapter:
Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants
Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!
I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!
What is Novel Boot Camp?
Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.