3 Things Your First Pages Must Have

June 23, 2022 § 17 Comments

For an agent, publisher or reader to keep going, your first pages must:

1) establish the main problem or quest

2) make us want to spend time with the protagonist (not the same as liking them)

3) teach us the rules/theme of the book we’re entering.

I’ve read a lot of book beginnings in my editing career. Some of what I’ve noticed: unpublished manuscripts—even “final” drafts—start with backstory. Or setting up relationships. Or giving a sense of mood, or bringing the reader into the setting. Or establishing exactly why the protagonist might develop a goal…later.

Published books start with action.

As I read sample queries, I looked up books that authors listed as comps. Books they aspire to be like; books they hope to be shelved next to. Time after time, the main problem or quest was established in the first paragraph. In memoirs:  

Cheryl Strayed loses a hiking boot and tells us what she’s set out to do and why it’s such an unlikely quest. Why is she doing it? Read on…

Jeannette Walls sees her mother digging through a sidewalk garbage can, and keeps going. Why doesn’t she stop? Read on…

Suleika Jaouad starts itching. What’s wrong with her? Read on…

Some genres have first-pages conventions. I looked at middle grade books, all written in first person, all starting in the middle of a scene that summarizes the whole problem of the book. I looked at young adult books, all establishing a strong-voiced narrator about to enter a new situation they’re dreading/anticipating. Can an author do something unconventional? Sure! But they’ve got to pull it off beautifully, and they’ve got to do it on purpose, not because they didn’t carefully examine other books in their genre.

For your own pages, skip the backstory (and any big world-building chunks). Let the reader figure it out from how the protagonist interacts with the world. This includes relationships. When you find yourself writing, “I leaned against my husband Paolo, and we watched our daughter Jane,” pick either the relationship or the name. The reader can figure out the name from dialogue, or the relationship from behavior. Keep place references casual. Not, “I pulled into the gravel driveway of our two-story mock Tudor that my wife Bobbie and I bought twelve years before,” but “pulled into the driveway,” or “got home.” Don’t lay out a floor plan or a family tree—get the reader into the story. Work in details as the narrator interacts with the setting while pursuing their main action.

What makes a protagonist someone we want to spend time with? Voice is a big reason. For memoirs, tell your story like you’re telling a friend, but better. As if you’re relating that cocktail-party story you’ve told before—genuine, but a little more polished.

You’ve probably also heard of “Saving the Cat”. This concept, named by Blake Snyder, means establishing the humanity of the character we’re going to spend time with. Maybe they literally save a cat from a tree before heading into the bar for a pre-recovery binge. Maybe they show a small kindness. I love this moment from the first pages of Free Lunch, middle-grade autofiction from Rex Ogle. The young narrator has just fought with his mother in the supermarket parking lot, upset about the family’s poverty. Then:

I pull a shopping cart from the pen. One of the wheels is wonky and spins left and right instead of rolling straight. I consider putting it back, getting a new one, but then I feel bad for it. It’s not the cart’s fault it’s messed up.

It’s a beautiful moment of saving the cat, and a remarkable craft moment—we love the narrator because the narrator feels compassion. For a shopping cart. In a sentence that also states a primary theme of the book—it’s not my fault I’m messed up.

Finally, your first pages must teach the “rules” of the book. What’s the tone? What genre are we entering? How will this story be told?

Kiese Laymon’s Heavy opens rhythmically, urgently—he’s going to tell a personal story that’s hard to tell, and he has to keep going before losing the nerve. This book will be voice-driven, the reader learns. Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black opens with a dryly funny author’s note. The reader learns that this book will be self-referential, and the format is part of the story. Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts opens with references to Wittgenstein and anal sex. The reader is either 100% in for this smart, visceral journey, or they’re going to put the book down before page two. By giving your reader a sense of the rules, they are already leaning in, meeting you on the page, anticipating what comes next.

Take a look at the published books you’d be thrilled to share a shelf with. What do those pages do? Are the quest, voice, rules and theme clearly established? Does the book start with an action? What, specifically, makes you want to spend time with the narrator? Then look at your own pages—are you doing the same things? If you’re choosing not to, what else have you done that’s just as strong or stronger?


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 17 Responses to 3 Things Your First Pages Must Have

  • Brilliant reminder & references, Allison! Something I posted on my wall: “Great opening pages are all unlike and nearly always contain a surprise. That surprise does not come from language that is forced or straining to impress. It springs from quite simple phrasing that signals something quite dramatic.” I stole it from the director & publisher of Graywolf, Fiona McCrae: https://www.graywolfpress.org/fiona-mccrae-first-pages

  • Yes, brilliant. I always know I will find your posts useful.

    When Mary Karr came to Portland the first time, she said her Liars Club was built from her “cocktail stories,” the anecdotes she told, so she claimed, in order to earn invitations to parties with food and drink she could not afford to buy. She was not intending to write memoir, but her agent urged her to write them down, and she needed to buy a car to get her son to school…

  • judithsaragelt says:

    Allison! You’ve given a genius craft class in a short essay. (No hyperbole here.) How smart to recommend using comp-books as models. I’m passing this on to writer friends! Thank you. Thank you!

  • […] 3 Things Your First Pages Must Have […]

  • Check, Check and Check… My adventure novel has a good start. 🙂

  • This is really good, Allison! I’m going to read it again and print it out. I know I will never write a blockbuster of a memoir , and don’t really love them, so glad you offered some ideas for more subtle openings . Kiese and Maggie are among my favorites! But now I’m gripped by chapter one of Ai Wei Wei’s 100 Years of Joys and Sorrows, a trip to a place and situation that is totally unfamiliar. I often find that a little patience with beginnings of both novels and memoirs pays off and the blockbusters get duller and more predictable in their surprises as I keep reading.

  • Sally Ashton says:

    Great advice, worth repeating, even for books of poetry. Thanks.

  • stacyeholden says:

    Great Piece! And I will use it in thinking about the opening of my HISTORY book. A historian can always use a good opening and early character development.

    • Polly Hansen says:

      I love this advice about rules: “By giving your reader a sense of the rules, they are already leaning in, meeting you on the page, anticipating what comes next.” Yes, letting the reader know what kind of story they are in for on the first page so I don’t waste anyone’s time. As a reader I appreciate knowing on the first page whether a visceral story will be one I care to stomach or not.

  • napoleonomama says:

    Thank you, I learned so much from this webinar! It was great!

  • Jack Mingo says:

    Wonderful hints. So good that I feel a little foolish mentioning the typo, the one thing that sent me backtracking a few paragraphs on a wild feline chase, looking for what I had apparently missed on first reading: the casual mention of “saving the cat.” It’s either a missing R or a writerly allusion I haven’t heard before.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Hi Jack – I discuss it in the previous prg 🙂

      This concept, named by Blake Snyder, means establishing the humanity of the character we’re going to spend time with.

      And it’s well worth reading Save the Cat! which breaks this concept down in more detail.

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