Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #1: The First Page Promise

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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.

Homework Assignment

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:

[VIDEO] First Chapter Mistakes and Cliches

[VIDEO] How to Write a Great First Chapter

[VIDEO] How to Write the Setup of Your Novel

Nailing Your Novel’s First Chapter

First Page Friday

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!

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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.

65 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #1: The First Page Promise

  1. Justyna says:

    Oh and also I can’t find my post in the guessing game. I would love to find out what did the rest participants thought about the plot. I know it was there soon after I submit it but it seems to despaired ;(

      • Justyna says:

        Hi jennfs10 😉 I looked through it again few hours latter and it was there – it’s just me panicking 😉 Unfortunately there’s not a lot entrees on my submission 😦 but still happy enough, the entries that are there got the plot right 🙂 Thank you for your response 🙂

  2. Hannah Murphy says:

    Woohoo! I think I’ve done it! Was going for a fast-paced, adventure novel and I think I’ve made the cut.

    But one thing I’m worried about, is that hinting at the main conflict. I do hit that within this chapter, but not on the first page. I really used this first page to emphasize the feel of the story, and a little bit of world building/background through the action and imagery. Do you think it’s okay to leave that hint out of the first page as long as it’s addressed later in the chapter? (Mine is at the end of the chapter)

    Thanks!

    -Hannah

    • Julie Griffith says:

      I did the same thing with mine, Hannah. First page sets the tone, and there’s more conflict as the chapter goes on. Anxious to see if that’s okay..or not.

  3. Julie Griffith says:

    I got the tone right with mine, but it’s the conflict I’m worried about. Also there’s stuff happening on the first page, but not sure if it’s enough to grab the reader. My writer’s group loved the begininning, so they say, but those aren’t professional opinions. Guess that’s why writers seek out professional editors. I’m confused and don’t know if it needs to be changed. I worked so hard on that opening, the thought of starting over on it is depressing, but since it’s so important it will be worth it to try to improve it. I’ll give it a go and play around with an alternate opening.

      • Julie Griffith says:

        There is conflict in the first chapter, but only minimally on the first page, and I wonder if I need to increase the amt. of conflict there. I think part of my insecurity is that I tend to think conflict means something big and dramatic, but I suppose it can be a small thing, too. Like if a character wants to stay home, but goes out anyway out of a feeling of obligation. So, does the conflict on the 1st page need to be exciting or dramatic in order to grab the reader, or is a small conflict okay to start it off?

        • Ellen_Brock says:

          A small conflict is fine so long as it is relevant in some way to the plot. It has to tell us something about the character or hint at the central conflict to come.

  4. Emily says:

    I’m finding this pretty difficult because I started my story with a prologue and now I am questioning my beginning. The prologue is fairly short and from a firefighters perspective, tells the story of the MC’s friends and families being dragged from the fire. Unfortunately all perish, other than the MC who is unscathed other than mysterious marks found on her hands, raising questions about how she in unharmed, what the marks are and if she or someone else caused the fire. To me, not necessarily to my advantage, I feel that it is necessary to have my prologue at the beginning as it explains what has happened previously to set up my MC in their first chapter, especially since they do not remember the fire themselves. It is also important that at the beginning she does not even consider that she could be involved in the fire, or know about the mystery marks on her.

    I am now conflicted as although it perhaps conveys the right tone, and maybe hints towards some aspects of the plot by the end of the chapter, the story is not from the MC’s POV and we don’t truly learn anything definitive about her, her life or her conflicts which I now see might be an issue. My problem is that I am unsure now how to resolve this first chapter whilst still making the story make sense.

    Any advice (from anyone) would be very useful!

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Hi Emily,

      It sounds to me like the prologue IS promising what the book intends to deliver since what occurs is relevant to the main character. It doesn’t matter if the main character knows that it’s about her, the reader still does (if I understand correctly).

      So long as you follow that with a first chapter that also has a relevant and interesting conflict, it’s probably okay.

      • Emily says:

        That’s great, thank’s very much for your advice.
        My first chapter possibly doesn’t link back to the prologue as well as it could, so perhaps that is something I can work on. Always something to be improved!
        Absolutely loving your advice to other commenters too. I feel like I’m picking up so much already that’ll be useful for the future.

  5. jennfs10 says:

    Ellen,
    Thank you so much for this lecture post. I really liked your analogy of the writing business and the movie business. It really is tough breaking through and a writer’s manuscript can certainly make or break your chances of getting published.

    I’m still at the beginning stages of writing. I’ve been outlining different stories, but haven’t really started any. I think my problem is getting started-it’s overwhelming. But I did find this post helpful and a strong way to start.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to put this lecture together.

  6. Sharon Smith says:

    Thanks, Ellen for an interesting post. According to the comments I received, I set the tone and identified the inner and exterior conflicts. This reflects the rest of my story but I fell into the No2 pitfall. I created a Prologue that I thought promised the reader more adventure. Now I’m really confused and like I have read in the other comments, I have had good feed back on this approach but now I’m not sure.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      A prologue is fine so long as what it promises is delivered on by the novel. If the prologue is simply an attempt to hide a boring first chapter, readers will get there eventually, find out it’s boring, and put the book down.

      So long as your first chapter isn’t devoid of relevant conflict, it’s probably okay.

      It’s fine to use a prologue to entice readers so long as it truly reflects the tone and genre of the novel.

      I hope this makes sense!

  7. trazanacho says:

    Hmmm… According to today’s lesson – I think I got the tone down [though not in the first 200 words], but I can’t get to the conflict in the first 200 words. I’m going to go back and try to cut down 90% of my intros [which eliminates the reader identifying with the characters] to see if I can get the tone/hook on the first page and hope that the reader will be willing to wait to get to know the characters. In my First Page Friday, I bypassed the Intros [previously the dreaded ‘Prologues’] and went straight to the action chapter – and got hammered by most of the critiquers here because they couldn’t identify with the characters.

    I feel like I’m caught in a Catch 22 here… but I’ll give it a shot. My question now is – what’s more important. The first 200 words or the first page? I believe my tone is good, but I’ve got no idea how to establish conflict without fir establishing the three major characters? Arrgghhhh!

    • Lara Willard says:

      I have three(ish) protagonists that are siblings. Can you structure a scene that hints to the major conflict, like Ellen suggested (see the bit about the postal worker)?
      Pick the character that has the most at stake at the beginning, give him/her a goal right away, and then throw obstacles in the way. As long as there’s some conflict—conflict that either characterizes or drives the plot towards the eventual conflict—readers will keep reading.
      I’d be happy to swap first chapters with you sometime! I’m constantly reworking mine for the same reasons.

  8. Lara Willard says:

    This is a great post! I shared it on Twitter. Great points.

    The genre guesses were all over the place on mine, but since my novel is pretty character- and relationships-driven, your post gave me confirmation that I can start where I am, slowly, hooking with voice but waiting a bit before the inciting incident happens. I mention a side character right away, which got people thinking that the other character was significant, but she only gets three sentences in the first chapter and isn’t mentioned again in the rest of the book.

    I do remember reading somewhere, though, that the more real estate you give a character at the beginning, the more likely readers will assume it’s a major character. Yet another reason that beginning with a prologue can be an issue—we get attached to a character and never see or hear from him or her again.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Yes, great point about prologues. Connecting with the wrong character can make readers feel cheated or disappointed when it turns out the novel is about someone else.

  9. decwinterton says:

    This is great timing – I was just planning to rewrite my opening as I thought the current one was boring and didn’t as you say – set the tone right.
    So I’ve come up with a new idea and I’ll give it a try over these next few days see what I come up with!

      • decwinterton says:

        Its a hard science-fiction story with three main characters – although it only starts by introducing two with a theme of freedom against immeasurable odds and the defiance of “destiny”.
        I’m getting very tempted to have a prologue establishing the villain before starting off with our main character though – See how it goes.

  10. Ashley Harman says:

    Hi Ellen,
    I recently posted on guess the genre. Though I’m not sure (I’m not good with tone) most people got that and the genre right but not the plot. I started with prologue though. And the character telling isn’t the main character. Should I keep this opening or not??? I also have a preface but it’s short. Thanks!!!

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      It’s hard to determine if the prologue is working without reading the first couple chapters. Is this prologue introducing something vital to the plot and a problem that is pervasive in the novel? Is the prologue an actual scene (beginning, middle, end, conflict, and resolution) or just a bunch of information?

      • Ashley Harman says:

        Sorry. I just got on here. Well, it’s a flashback really, but it sort of gives a hint to a plot twist I planned in a later book in this series.

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