Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Making First Page Promises

The first page of a novel (or a short story for that matter) should be a promise.  You are going to read this sort of book, with these sort of characters.  The problems they face are going to be about this.  The writing style is this, the tone is that.  If you read the first page, and like it, you'll like the rest of the book.  I promise.

As authors we can't control the cover, nor the blurb on the back (although one hopes to have input into them).  What we can control is the promise we make to the reader on that first page.  So it is absolutely essential that the right promise is on the first page, that if it's a racy thriller, either something racy happens, or we're explicitly promised that it's going to happen pretty soon.  Similarly a relationship novel should ideally start with the relationship problem being clearly stated.  

I must admit I only formulated this idea a few years ago after I'd done classes workshopping first pages with students.  The ones that got the most positive responses were the ones where the author's promise to the reader was clear.  When I went back to my first novel, Adultery for Beginners, I saw that, without realising it, I'd made the promise there.  The opening paragraph starts with the single word: Drat. Isabel and her husband have just made love, but all Isabel can think about is that she's going to have to change the sheets - and she only changed them yesterday. It summed up their stale relationship. 

So when you're writing your opening page, think about what promises you're making to the reader, and know that you're going to be able to keep them.  


Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah
Great idea and seems so obvious. shall start looking at all first pages in this way now! Must also get along her more often (i.e. turn up!) to remind myself of all your good advice.

Sarah Duncan said...

Glad the comment works for you, I think it applies to most books (which is just asking for exceptions...). But when you think that an agent may only look at a first page, it makes sense to be sure that what you're offering 'fits' the rest of your novel.

Lizzie said...

Thanks for the post, Sarah. It nudged me to go back to my first page – there was something not quite right, I felt. But by moving a para from the second page it now works much better (I think) and the reader knows more about the heroine's state of mind and what sort of book it is.

My rewrite is nearly finished – just the last chapter to do, plus the synopsis.

I've been meaning to ask you, do you ever do one day workshops, or that sort of thing?


Sarah Duncan said...

If you've got that not-quite-right feeling you need to act on it - see today's post! But it sounds as if you've been your own writing friend and got it right.

Yes! I'm planning some one day workshops in Bath, Oxford and Truro on How to Write a Novel and How to get a Novel Published. Just sorting out dates at the moment.

Lizzie said...

Brilliant! It'd be Bath for me.