Sunday, November 29, 2009

Technical Topics -- Page One

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.


  1. Hi, Jo. Great analysis. And interesting that the first item is also the very first thing I look for in an opening page. Writing and voice. If that passes muster, I'll move on to numbers 2 through 5.

    I don't often get that far. Number one is really important, at least to me.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. It's that simple for me too. I'm really just interested in whether the author can write.

    (Let's see if it sticks this time.)

  4. I almost tweeted your comment at DA. Glad to see you made a regular blog post out of it too.

  5. Anonymous7:12 PM

    Gulp. You make it look so effortless, ladies.

  6. @Sherry --

    There's going to be other stuff we do with Page One to signal the reader.

    I think we tell the reader what kind of vocabulary to expect. The complexity of the grammar. How hard this book will be to understand.

    And we signal comedy. All strong authorial voice gets heard, of course, but writers with comedic or ironic voice particularly seem to showcase the voice on Page One.

    The POV thing . . .

    Someplace or other, in answer to whether it was ok to start in male POV, I looked at the Page One POV of the dozen or so single-title Historical Romances I had right on hand.

    Informally, I'm running maybe 35% male protagonist. 60% female protagonist. And one 'other'.

    The other's an interesting result.
    Omniscient Narrator. Since Pam Rosenthal did this it's not an accident. I have to go back and reread and think about it and decide why she chose O.N. for Page One.

    I'll keep an eye peeled for minor character POV and see who's doing it and why. Mostly prologues, I should imagine.

  7. @anon --

    There's bunches of other stuff writers signal on the first page. I'm just not coming up with it. Let me know if you think of something.

  8. Anonymous6:04 PM

    For some reason (read... I don't know how I am going to put all these things into my first page and make it flow), this put me in mind of the Monty Python string sketch. I attached the site where someone has taken the time to write out the lines. Enjoy, if you haven't already heard it.

  9. You don't so much sit down and 'think' about any of this when you're doing the first draft. At least, I don't. I figure you write the story you 'see'. The story you dream. The drama that plays on the backside of the eyelids.

    The creative process and the editing/analytic process do not like to share the same head. They take turns.

    This complicated nitpicking is useful waaaay down the line, along about the time you finish your third draft of the entire manuscript and you are maybe asking yourself why Chapter One is not knocking your socks off. That's when the analytical side gets useful It lets you put your finger on what's wrong and how to fix it.

    For instance,
    let's say you've finished the manuscript and are moderately pleased with the overall effect but Page One 'feels' wrong,
    (being all touchy-feely here.)
    Maybe, in an attempt to 'hook' the reader, we created an incident of very different flavor from the rest of your story. Is the 'voice' of Page One atypical? Have we started with the wrong character? Do we have the right guy on stage but we're not conveying the most important aspect of his character?

    So all this complication and technique is not so much part of the creative process,
    where it would be distracting and we might as well listen to grunge rock,
    as it part of the other half of writing,
    which is edting.

    Though I hope all this thinking about technique leaks into the subconscious somehow and froths away there like organic yeast and is helpful.