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Wednesday, February 17, 2021

4 Mistakes that Doom the First Page of Your Manuscript

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your novel’s first page is the last chance you get to hook your reader.

Writing your first page might be one of the scariest moments in writing a novel. So much is riding on it, and that’s a lot of pressure to deal with while you’re trying to craft the perfect opening line, or find the right voice for the story.

First off, relax.

Yes, the first page is important, but you don’t have to get it right on a first draft, or any draft until the final draft. You have plenty of time to craft a first page that will wow readers, agents, and editors. Many writers don’t even know what the right first page is until they’re written the end of the book.

But don’t ignore it either, because first pages really are as critical as everyone says. No matter how awesome the idea for a novel sounds, if you read that first page and it’s a total dud—you don’t read on. And if a reader is peeking into your novel to see if it hooks them, and it doesn’t, bye-bye sale.

The first page of your novel often determines if a reader is going to give your book a chance. 


If that page doesn’t give a good impression, you’ve wasted an opportunity to earn a reader. Maybe you’ve confused them, or dumped in too many names to keep track of, maybe it’s all told and not shown, or it’s nothing but backstory. It might even be trying too hard to shove as much action onto the page as possible, leaving the reader behind in the chaos.

Let's look at four common first-page killers. Agent Kristin Nelson said 90% of submissions don't get beyond the first two pages for these reasons.

1. You tell readers all about the cool stuff you worked so hard to create.


If your opening pages are nothing but backstory and explanation, you aren’t giving readers a story—you’re lecturing them from your notes about the novel. Don’t fall prey to the urge to explain and share everything you know about these characters, world, and story on the first page.

Luckily, this is an easy fix—cut out the backstory and explanation. "But the reader needs to know that to get the story!" you say? No, the really don't. Until they care about what's happening, they don't care about the history of the people it's happening to.

(Here’s more on 4 Reasons Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

2. You pick one direction and go full tilt at full speed into it.


Opening pages that only do one thing—such as show action, but no character development or any other components that are essential to strong writing—tend to fall flat, because they don’t show a character with a problem. It’s all about setting a mood, or establishing a setting, or creating drama, but without the story aspect to make readers care. All those elements matter, but don’t make the first page one of those elements and nothing else.

This is why "action" scenes often fail. Action (in the movie-action sense) is pretty much a bunch of description. Stuff is going on, but there's no story yet because there's no character with a goal who's in trouble. If your opening is a lot of this kind of action, add in why the action matters and give readers a character with a clear problem they can care about and connect with. If there's no action, then give your character something to do that could go wrong or cause a problem at any moment.

(Here’s more on Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers)

3. You ignore those pesky “grammar rules.”


Problems with sentence structure, misuse or overuse of description, and basic grammar gaffes on the first page peg you as “not ready for publication” no matter how good the idea might be. Publishing is a business, and your book is a product. Readers, as well as agents and editors, expect you to know how to write.

If you haven't developed your writing skills yet, dig in and learn your craft. You might be a great author in the making, but authors need to know how to write at a professional level to make it in this biz. Don't ruin your chances by trying to publish before you're ready.

(Here’s more on Grammar and You: What You Need to Know to Write)

4. You use a bait and switch on your readers.


In an effort to hook readers, you write a prologue (or chapter one) that sets up a faux conflict that has very little connection to actual novel. The tone is different, the characters change, the plot isn’t at all what that opening promised. The goal was to hook readers by any means necessary, not open the novel with a compelling first page of a great story. Often, this includes a fast forward to an "exciting" scene later in the book.

"What if I start with something cool to hook the reader, then go back to my story?" you say. This isn't as effective as you'd think (usually for reason #2). Readers bought your book because they liked what they saw in the opening pages. If you lie to them, or trick them and change the book on them, there's a good chance you'll just piss them off. They might finish the book because they bought it, but the odds of them picking up another of your books, or recommending you to their friends is low.

Start with the story. Have enough faith in that story to trust it can stand on its own (and if it can't, make it so it can) and hook a reader. It takes just as much effort to fake an "exciting" opening as it does to fix a real opening. And since a fake opening is bound to be flat anyway, and only seem exciting to someone who already knows the story, it's often a wasted effort.

(Here’s more on The Problem With Flash Forwards as an Opening Scene)


Now that I’ve covered the mistakes, let’s look at an opening page that did work, and attracted an agent and sold for six figures to an editor from HarperCollins.


The teen fantasy novel, The Shifter, which was my debut novel back in 2009.

This opening didn't change much from first draft to final published novel. You'll notice there is zero backstory or explanation. More than one thing is going on and it dives right into a problem with no tricks and no prologue to set it up. Something is happening, things are going wrong, but there's no actual "action" until right at the end. Most of this opening is internalization from the protagonist.

What it does most, is give readers a character they can like, connect with, and hopefully care about enough to stick with the story to see what happens next.

Here are the first 250 (okay, 264) words of The Shifter:

Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible. Right away something is happening. A girl is stealing eggs, and there's a risk if the chicken wakes and starts pecking and fussing. This seems like a minor stake, but for someone committing a robbery, anything that calls attention to that can get them in a lot of trouble. Readers also aren't asking for the world to end on page one. Give them a hint of risk, and they're happy to see where it goes. Just provide a sense that the story is going somewhere.

The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out. She's self-deprecating here, which hopefully makes her likable. You also might be wondering why she's stealing eggs and not the whole chicken. You might even be curious what happened those other times before she learned this trick. All good things to make you want to read on.

“Good morning little hen,” I sang softly. The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. She didn’t get to squawking, just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, and she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week. Adding in the unloading fish detail gives a sense that the protagonist doesn't always steal, which should increase curiosity about why she's stealing now. It's also something she overheard, not was told, which should give a small insight into her character. She wasn't friends or coworkers with these boys, she was just there with them. How might a girl find herself in that situation? 

Interesting detail: Since this was published as upper middle grade, in the printed version, this is where the first page actually ends—right after wings. So depending on how the book is laid out, your "first page" might be fewer than 250 words.

A voice came from beside me. “Don’t move.” Now things have gone wrong. This is 161 words into the book and already I've thrown Nya into trouble. If I've done my job well, you already like my egg-stealing protagonist and are worried about her getting away. Do you care about where she grew up? Is not knowing her past interfering at all with what's going on in this scene and keeping you from enjoying it? Do you care about her past in any other way than maybe how she came to be stealing eggs this night? Probably not.

Two words I didn’t want to hear with someone else’s chicken under my arm. Again, more humor and a sense of who this girl is. I need you to like her so you want to read about her, and getting to know her a little is a great way to do that.

I froze. The chicken didn’t. Her scaly feet flailed toward the eggs that should have been my breakfast. Now we finally get some motivation, small as it is. She's there to steal eggs for breakfast. But I don't go into why she has to steal. I don't explain how she's an orphan living on the streets, that her parents were killed in a civil war. I don't even mention that she has a magical ability yet, because none of that matters right now. It's all about making readers like her enough to care about a situation that's about to go wrong. I looked up at a cute night guard not much older than me, perhaps sixteen. The night was more humid than usual, but a slight breeze blew his sand-pale hair. A soldier’s cut, but a month or two grown out. Here I provide a little description, and you'll notice that aside from a word here and there (like scaly feet and said softly) it's the first time I describe anything. I didn't describe the setting, didn't do any setup. I waited until I (hopefully) had the reader hooked with my protagonist's problem. But this boy is important and she needs to notice him. It's also a way to show more about her by what she notices about this boy.

Stay calm, stay alert. As Grannyma used to say, if you’re caught with the cake, you might as well offer them a piece. Not sure how that applied to chickens though. And here she immediately has a plan (such as it is). She's acting, not being passive and waiting for other characters to do something. The story is moving ahead, even if those moves are small and subtle. There's no "big action" here, but things are happening. You can probably make a few assumptions about Nya and her situation; you feel you know her a little and might even get a sense of the world she's living in. All in 264 words.

Is this opening page perfect? Of course not. But it does its job and establishes an interesting character, facing an interesting problem, in an interesting way, which is all a first page needs to do. We don’t need to pack an entire novel’s worth of story on page one, we just need to provide enough to encourage readers to turn to page two.

Don't waste those 250 chances. Use them to show how good a writer you really are.


Openings are vital to getting someone to read your book. Your job as an author is to give readers a book they can lose themselves in, and that means a great opening that hooks readers right away.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the first page of your novel. Are you making any of these mistakes? If so, brainstorm ways to rework your opening.

What are some of your favorite opening pages? Why do you like them?

*Originally published September 2010. Last updated February 2021.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
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  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
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  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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48 comments:

  1. Another great post, Janice. I also posted on Inkwell.ning.com with link back to here.

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  2. Great post, and a fresh but important take on why your opening is so important.

    And love your opening - in fact I read that first line on a blog ages ago and it really stuck with me. I've always enjoyed your blog and now I find you wrote that unforgettable line!

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  3. This is an excellent post! Thank you for using your own first 264 words so that we can see your thought process! I'm tweeting this AND bookmarking it for reference later ;-)

    Amanda
    @AmandaLBurford

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  4. Another possible opening to one of my stories popped into my head while reading this. It might actually work to hook the reader as well as fit the pacing I want to use. I love the reassurance that a story doesn't have jump in with a bang to grab attention as long as we make the reader want to learn more.

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  5. More great info. You are just full of it, in a good way!

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  6. I don't know if my opening classifies as "backstory" or not. It starts with the conflict, but it happened when the main character was a kid and jumps to his adulthood in the next chapter. So I guess what I'm asking is, if the prologue is the beginning, should we start there or not?

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  7. Great post. And I love Kristen Nelson's blog. It always has such good advice.

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  8. Really useful post. The link to Livia's post on Chuck's blog is great too. Everybody should read these over and then go tackle their first pages again.

    Amazing how much bad stuff we do (like "trick" prologues) because we see it in popular books. I think that kind of prologue was in fashion 20-30 years ago, and we're still doing it because we're still reading those books.

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  9. Story Weaver, there's nothing inherently wrong with that type of opening as long as the childhood event does all the things a good opening should do. But if it's there mostly because we need to know that event "to understand the protag" then there's a good chance it's unneeded backstory. Hook the reader first, then let them know why the protag is the way they are.

    But if the childhood event has a problem to solve, a character to be intrigued by, and a reason to see what happens next, then it can work just fine.

    Most prologues are unnecessary. You'd have to look hard at yours and decide if it's working or not. A big clue, is to ask yourself if the prologue conveys info that could used to hook the reader and make them wonder about the protag (and thus up the tension). If this secret could be revealed later for more punch, then it can probably go. But if this info really sets up the whole problem, it might be fine.

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  10. This was such an excellent post. I should go back and analyze my first 250 words in such detail.

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  11. Great post!! I know for a fact as a reader you need that pull or the person will stop reading the book!! There are books that pull me in and some take pages to do so...you can tell cause I choose to either stop reading or read so slow I forget about them and never finish.

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  12. This post is GREAT! (I can't stress how great it really is!) The only hidden side effect this had was now I want to go & buy your book so I can see why she was stealing chickens, who the boy was & why he was important, and what's going on! LOL The main effect has been to make me take a much harder look at what I've written in my current work in progress to see if I've followed your formula (applying it to my situation of course) and whether or not it would get read or rejected the R's of this industry. Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge!

    Moni~!

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  13. Monica: Thanks! It's been both fun and educational for me too, breaking my own work down like this. It really makes you look at what you do and why.

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  14. Hi Janice! First of all, I love your blog and have found the detailed posts and the recommended exercises very helpful, so thank you!

    My question is this - I have two main characters, a couple, so two protagonists. However, I am focusing more on the woman as the primary protagonist, and I wonder if it is bad form for the opening to be primarily about the man? I don't think it's misleading, exactly, but do you think that is an inherently bad idea, or could it work if it were followed soon after with a return to her perspective?

    Thanks for any advice you can give!

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  15. I thin it depends on how you approach it. If the readers knows going n that the woman is the MC, but that the man is also important, it'll probably be fine. Stories don't always start with the MC, especially in multiple POV.

    If the book reads as if the MC is the man, and then it cuts to the woman and follows her, you risk confusing or annoying the reader. I read a book where the author kept changing the POV character every chapter, and just as I got into that person's story they died. Drove me nuts and I put down the book.

    If you opened with the man and then switched to the woman next chapter, you're probably fine. If the first quarter of the book is the man, then the rest is the woman, you'd probably have a problem. It's more about how those early man chapters set up the story and reader expectations.

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  16. Janice,
    I loved your character's introduction. Would definitely want to know more. I shared a link to this post on my Tumblr account.
    http://www.tumblr.com/tumblelog/kayelleallen Thanks for the insight.

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  17. Janice, I am quite in love for Stardust, by Neil Gaiman and he starts the book as a teller, explaining the place, the character. The first pages are about backstory. Would you say it is an exception?

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  18. Excellent post!

    You're one the of very few, if not the only, instructors who actually show a live example.

    Such a refreshing change from reading just abstract concepts.

    Thank you.

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  19. Priscila, yes. Stardust was written in 1998, and styles change in writing. Neil Gaiman can get away with things other writers can't :) It also depends on how something is done. If the backstory is told with a great voice, character, and what's happening is compelling, it'll work. The problem with most backstory setup chapters is that they don't offer the reader anything to keep them reading. It's just information to prepare them for the actual story.

    Writer Road, I find examples help me and I get things so much easier when I can see them in practice. That frustration with abstract concepts is one of the reasons I started this blog.

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  20. So glad I've been trawling back through your old posts, Janice. This one is a real treasure especially that you've used your story, The Shifter to show what you mean precisely.
    Thank you. :)

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  21. Sheryl g, me too! I try to make it easy to find things, and Tweet older posts as well. Makes more sense than writing a new post on the same topic :)

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  22. This is a fantastic article! Thanks for the insight. It is always tricky for the first page or so to pop. For me, I love to have the first line to surprise them a bit. Thanks for sharing!

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  23. Thoughtonplot, me too. I'll spend weeks (or months) on a first line.

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  24. GREAT advice. I load my kindle with free books each day. Lots of them are Indies, which I'm a big fan of because I'm an Indie. BUT, I read very few of them because they don't grab me from the get-go. Readers WANT to like your book. They do! They WANT a great compelling story, but if you don't start it out that way, they'll never dig in further to see if it gets better. Thanks for sharing on this topic. I'm so tired of trying to find a good book :)

    Blessings,
    Mel
    Please feel free to stop by: Trailing After God

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  25. Thanks Mel! Samples (be in excerpts, look inside, or free books) are great ways to see what works and what doesn't in a first page. If you don't want to read on, you know they're not doping their job. They book you want to buy or download are doing it right.

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  26. Great post. I need these reminders. Especially after being out of my writing for a few years (warning: politics will eat your life). I'll be sure to hang out here more often.

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  27. Ron, thanks! That's one of the reason I love reader other writing blogs, because they remind me of things I might not be paying attention to anymore. Sounds like you've been busy! But good to have you here :)

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  28. So I realize I'm super late on this, but thanks so much for this post! I sat down to do revisions today on a novel I hope to pitch in the near future, and found that my original 250 words were useless--laden with descriptions and purple prose and pretty sentences. I chopped that crap up, moved it around, and repurposed the beginning. Hopefully it does me good! As far as I can tell, it makes the start more interesting, but I'll have to ask some beta buddies...again, thanks! :)

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    1. Better late than never, and I see comments on old posts, so no worries there. I'm glad this was helpful, and hope your new beginning grabs those beta readers!

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  29. Nice way to hook the reader :D

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  30. Thanks for this very clear explanation. I will be sure to use this advice. I'm about to start a university degree majoring in Creative Writing but till now I've mostly just heard "show don't tell" and "don't open with a description of the weather".

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    1. Both are good advice, but there's so much more to it :) Good luck at university!

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  31. Here are 256 first words of mine (as it is fan fiction, likely I might not get permission from copyright owners to publish commercially):

    Susan has a bad fright.
    Ad ostendendam quandam veritatem ...

    In one of the golden happy years after beating Hitler when party was the rule of the day, when soldiers not yet married were party lions, and boys too young to have fought might say how much they admired their older brother (but unfortunately for the ladies that elder brother was already married) or even lie and pretend to have been fighting in the war, Susan Pevensie was at a party.

    Once home - she took a cab, the Pevensies were a bit better off, but she had to share it and half regretted it, since the taxi had a bad jerk, but even more because of the company that was starting to be not so entertaining any longer - she pushed the young goggled man off as he tried to embrace her.

    - "No, don't, rather!"

    - "Why?"

    - "You said you envied the pilot who bombed Dresden!"

    - "Yea - so?"

    - "Then you would have been bombing all the old men and children and babies and mothers who were in the city?"

    - "Sure, I see what you mean, but - they were Germans!"

    - "Take this from me:" Susan added with some heat and bitterness. "German soldiers may have been fighting for Hitler, but their women and children were not. And in a war, you fight the ones who fight. Not women or children!"

    - "So, what do you know?"

    - "Well, anyone knows the German soldiers were not in town 1945.

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  32. Need to change "once home" to "once in front of her home" or sth ...

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  33. Many thanks.
    Having re-written my opening several times now I came accross your post. I feel I have a more enlightend view on what matters in the first few lines.

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  34. Great post. This article gave me exactly what lacked in my opening scene...a hook. Thank you, Janice. ps: I am bookmarking your articles.

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  35. Great post, Janice. Explaining why you did what you did is a great technique. Well done.

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    1. Thanks! So much of writing is just instinctive, it's fun to go back analyze it. Part of what I love about doing this blog.

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  36. I really enjoyed that opening, Janice (and am now realizing this post dates back to 2010!). I can see why a publisher snatched it up. Question: am I missing how the reader knows the protagonist is female? Is that assumed from the genre or cover design?

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    1. Thanks! Yep, I've been updating and recycling. 3000 posts after 12 years, so there's a lot on the site now.

      They'd know from the cover copy, since her name and gender are used. But a good catch, as there's nothing in this opening that says gender.

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  37. Thanks so much for sharing. I really appreciate the examples of what works as opposed to what you can be doing wrong.

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    1. Most welcome. I like examples, too. It's so much easier to see things in practice.

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