How to write a killer opening page

Today we’re going to be talking about the first page of your novel, and how you can give it that WOW factor that will make readers, agents and editors sit up and notice.
 
We all know how important that first page is. It’s usually the first page that introduces us to our main character and it’s the first page that has a reader deciding how they’re going to approach reading your book. With excitement? With rising boredom? This is particularly true for YA and Middle Grade fiction, where you have a very short window of time to grab your reader’s attention.
 
In short, the first page sets the scene, so it pays to make it as engaging as possible.
Now, I’m not saying I’m particularly brilliant at first pages (or any point of writing, actually). However, the first 1,500 words of my Bath Spa MA manuscript did have seven agents requesting a full draft of the novel, so I think I have – unintentionally and unknowingly – hit upon something that makes those opening words interesting.
 
(I have changed those first 1,500 words entirely now, but… details!)
 
So, what do we need in the first pages of a novel?
 
Here’s what I think are the most important:
 
A sense of who your main character is.
 
This isn’t necessarily their looks or a run-down of their history. Can you mention a habit that really defines them, or describe them in a place that means a lot to them, or begin to portray their relationship with a close friend or family member?
 
In the opening pages of Cliff Edge, we get to see Cecelia’s recurring nightmare that informs us about a number of things: the water horses, who will become a recurring motif in the story; her mother’s death, another recurring theme; and her own feelings of fear and insecurity inside her body.
 
Dreams do tend to be a cliche at the beginning of a novel, so if you’re thinking along the same lines try to ensure you have a good reason for starting there. For my story, the nightmare is a recurring one and what really happened that day is a major plot point, so I decided it was worth the risk.
 
An introduction to your “voice”
 
You may not know what your voice is, or even that you have one – but you will have one. Almost everyone does by the time they’ve finished a book.
 
It’s the way your main character thinks or speaks. They may be lyrical, pensive, calm and slow. They may be fiery. Sharp. Lots of short burning sentences and angry consonants.
 
I would always recommend going back and rewriting your opening scene once you’ve finished the book, or at least once you’re confident that you’ve nailed your character’s voice, to make sure we know exactly who we’re reading about from the very first sentence.
 
This may be bragging, but I’ve started work on a new novel while I wait for feedback from Steph and Izzy on the latest draft of Cliff Edge, and I’m so pleased with how the voice of my main character has come through in the opening paragraph.
 
Here it is:
We rock, me and Baby. I have to dangle a leg over the side and push with my toes to do it, but it’s worth it. Baby’s always quiet when we rock. I imagine her outside of me, ten pink fingers and ten pink toes, brown eyes closing as I push her in her cradle. She’ll sleep so well, as long as I can rock her the way I can now.
I think the naive nature of my main character comes through here, and straight away you’ve got information that is vital to the rest of the story: this girl is pregnant, she loves her child, they are an inextricable “we” in her mind. I hope a sense of her youth comes through too, because that’s very important as well.
 
A hint about where your plot is going OR a sense of setting OR a family relationship
 
I’m putting these as either/ors because I also think you need to be careful about packing too much information in too soon! Beginning a story is all about drip-feeding that info in to make sure you don’t “info-dump” on your readers.
 
Some people will say that you need to drop clues in your opening pages about exactly where your novel is going to end, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I do think it can be a good technique to allow your opening pages to inform your ending, though, or vice versa. For example, Cliff Edge now ends with the very same water horses that the novel opens with, and I’m really pleased with that decision.
 
Other things that can engage the reader are an evocation of setting or an interaction between your main character and another character who is important to them. Both of these things can build the character deftly, help your reader get to know them, and generally continue to paint that picture without you having to get too “tell”y.
 
Here’s an example first page from another novel idea I have, about three siblings who begin to fall apart when one of them is accused of murder.
I hear about it from Instagram of all places. I’m upside-down on the hotel bed, trying to ignore Cary plucking irritating plink-plink-plink guitar chords in the corner, scrolling idly through some Insta stories.
 
“Uh,” I say over a minor C, “Car?”
 
He modulates the C into a D. “What?”
 
“I think Jamie’s been arrested.”
 
The chords stop abruptly. “You what?”
 
Frowning, I extend my arm up and back, holding the phone out to him.
 
“Tap back. There’s a video.”
 
He’s obnoxious about social media, my middle brother, so it takes him a few gos to get it. There’s a long silence, and then he sets his guitar aside.
 
“I think we’d better call Coles,” he says, and that’s when the worry really settles into my gut. He’s loathed our PR company since Mum brought them on board.
 
“You hate them, though.” I roll over and push myself up onto my elbows, easing up as my long hair gets trapped. “Why d’you want to ring them?”
 
Cary holds my phone out to me. His expression is wild.
“Tansy,” he says, white as the hotel walls, “it says he’s been arrested for murder.”
This introduces my main character and shows the family relationship element. It also introduces them as musicians, as famous, sets us firmly in a contemporary period and sets the plot rolling.
 
So there you have it, my top tips for a great opening scene. There are loads of great examples out there of amazing opening pages. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart is particularly good. Why not comb through a few lists and see what others you can find to inspire you?
 
Or better you, let me know here or on my social media: what’s the best opening page you’ve ever read? Or written?
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