I was thinking about the first page.
The first page is a semaphore where the author sends the reader messages. It's a place of signals, flags run up the mast, secret handshakes.
What are we saying, as writers, on page one?
I'm going to skip right past the infamous 'hook' since that is endlessly discussed.
Let me talk about five other things that happen on the first page.
.1) The first page tells the reader whether the author knows how to write.
If the first page does not stay in POV, if the voice of the character is inconsistent, if the author misuses words, if the language is cliched or dull and lifeless, potential readers will decide this author is not technically skilled.
And we have just lost a tranche of possible readership.
.2) The first page tells the reader what the book is ‘about’.
The boredly sexing Regency rake on page one says the book is ‘about’ sexy Regency hijinks. The sullen, but vibrantly alive, race driver, rounding the curve at Indianapolis, says the book is about a bad-boy on the racing circuit. A quiet young woman arranging flowers in her flowershop tells us this is probably a sweet contemporary. The rattle and bustle of the newsroom and an impatient woman reporter on the phone says Romantic Suspense or an edgy Contemporary.
Readers looking for a Regency will now put the Suspense down, and vice versa.
.3) The first page sets the sexual tone of the book.
Aunt Minnie presiding with a dainty wrist over the teapot tells us this is likely to be a cool, GP read. Explicit sexxing says XXX.
We let the reader know what heat and type of sex is on offer. Maybe not the first page, but as soon as possible.
.4) In Romance genre, the first POV character introduced is generally an important character . . . usually one of the protagonists.
Writers do this ’starting with a major character’ schtick for the same reason shoe stores put … well … shoes in the shop window, rather than aprons or hedge trimmers. They are showing off the merchandise they plan to sell.
This ’starting with a major character’ is so common that writers often prologue when they decide to start the story with someone other than a protagonist. Wanting to try out a non-protagonist POV is, perhaps, the major cause of prologuing.
The 'starting with the hero or heroine' is so common, in fact, that the reader assumes it. Standing there in the store, the reader immediately asks herself if she wants to spend the next 357 pages with this first POV guy or gal.
She doesn't ask the same question about a character met in Chapter Three.
So our first-page POV character may have to pass a ‘do I like this guy 357 pages worth’ standard.
.5) The first page gives us the flavor of the story.
Page One is the first taste of the soup.
If page one is droll and witty, philosophical, explicitly sexual, filled with suspense, or packed with action . . . the reader expects to find this everywhere in the book.
Jalapeño peppers in the first spoonful should mean jalapeño peppers everywhere.
If readers find blood and guts festooning the entry portal, they’re justified in assuming this is a horror story.
If page one does not deliver on its horrific promise in the rest of the story, we're going to loose both the readers who catfoot away from all that gore,
and the horror fans who end up disappointed when nobody pulls out an ax in Chapter Three.