SMC: Powerful First Pages

This breakout session was taught by Josi Kilpack, author of the Culinary Mysteries series and several other books. Check out her author website here.

And now, THE NOTES.

If we want other people to read our books we must fulfill their expectations. We’ve created a sort of reader contract with them. The first chapter is your first chance to fulfill or fail those expectations.

OPENING HOOK vs BOOK HOOK

The book hook is what your book is about. The opening hook is getting right into the story and making sure right away that it is interesting to your reader. So while your whole book must have an interesting premise and blurb to entice readers to read the book, the first chapter must have it’s own mini-hook that drives them to proceed anxiously to chapter two.

A side note: A lot of people will point to other authors who break the rules as their excuse for breaking the rules in their own novels. But here’s the thing: In order to break rules you must 100% absolutely understand why that rule is in place and know exactly why you’re bending it. Otherwise it’ll likely turn into a gimmick—and you’ll push potential readers away.

HOOK vs GIMMICK

Your goal is to gain the reader’s interest. You will lose most readers after the first chapter if it’s not good. However, sometimes things we think must be interesting aren’t if we allow them to become a gimmick and not a hook.

For example, let’s say there’s great action in the first chapter, but it didn’t match the book. The rest of the book was more of a careful, slow build to a different kind of story—more like a Steel Magnolias tone vs. Die Hard. It didn’t fit, it didn’t give you a good idea of what this story is about. It’s become a gimmick if you’re trying to manipulate readers into reading the book and setting up a false hope of what the story will be about. Not every book must be an action story, nor should it, but don’t set up false expectations of what kind of story your reader will be getting.

BEFORE YOU START

1) Mood/Tone – What do you want your reader to feel when they read this chapter? Sympathetic? Anxious? What feeling do you want your readers to take away from this first chapter?
2) Goal – What’s the goal of this chapter? What’s the character’s goal? What’s the plot’s goal? We need to know the starting point, and why it’s important we chose it. Do it in the present. We’re often tempted to do backstory and a lot of setting, but we must start our story now, where the story begins.

Tips for Starting Active:

  • Have dialogue
  • Have movement
  • Have momentum
  • Create tension
  • Show interaction
  • Have action (though this doesn’t necessarily mean guns blazing, just that something is happening)
  • Show conflict
  • Enter at the middle of the scene

DON’T EVER use a flashback ever until you’re at least 1/3 of the way through the book. You want to keep the momentum. You’ve got to give the reader time to invest in your NOW character. They don’t care about your THEN character with relation to NOW (at least not yet, which is why you need to build up sympathy before doing any flashback.)

In your first pages, create a mystery but avoid confusion. Take the beginning of Harry Potter as an example. There were tons of questions thrown into the first pages, which took place in a familiar, non-confusing setting—London, present day. There were owls in London. How often does that happen? How peculiar for the reader. Getting the point?

Have a great first line that says something interesting. Your first line is the hook for the first paragraph. Don’t waste it. Use it to say something that tells us about the tone of the story, the voice, maybe even in a small way the plot. And make sure that in your first pages the reader cares about what’s going to happen to the character by the end.

JAE NOTE: I know it’s tradition now and it wouldn’t be Star Wars without it, but does A New Hope really need all the scrolling text at the beginning. The first scene tells us everything we need to know. You’ve got big menacing ship attacking hopelessly small ship, and then some creepy robot dude all dressed in black comes on killing people and talking about rebels. ‘Nuff said, don’t you think? Make sure you’re not doing the equivalent of putting scrolling titles at the front of your book because you won’t have John Williams to kick up the excitement notch.

DON’T

  • Include backstory unless directly tied to the arc of the chapter (backstory changes momentum)
  • Avoid backstory just to dump backstory into chapter 2
  • Use a flashback
  • Use a reflection
  • Use much exposition (it’s internal, it’s not really active)
  • Be boring (a sunset, even if it’s well-described, there’s nothing happening)
  • Feel like you have to introduce the overarching story problem (In Harry Potter, we don’t know the overarching problem for a long time)
  • Introduce your main character through another character’s viewpoint (because your readers will be investing their sympathy in that character vs. your main)
  • Use too many characters

EVERY FIRST CHAPTER NEEDS:

  • Active voice, strong verbs
  • Mood that represents the book
  • A great first line
  • Dialogue
  • Conflict that matters
  • Time and Place
  • Cliffhanger—just enough to lead them to Chapter 2

*****

JAE NOTE: I’ve beta read a couple of manuscripts that insist on introducing the main character via another character’s viewpoint and it annoys me to no end. Why can’t we just start with the main character? Like she said, unless you 100% understand why a certain rule is in place and know exactly why you’re bending it—don’t. It’s one thing that really, really, really, bothered me about The Name of the Wind and if I didn’t have my little brother goading me to keep reading until I got to the “good stuff” I don’t know that I would have bothered with the book. It’s certainly a big risk to take, especially for those of us looking to breakout. You won’t always have little brothers encouraging readers to keep on reading.

Do you agree with Josi’s advice? Have you come across novels that didn’t follow her advice and were a struggle to read? What advice would you add for making strong first pages? Learn anything new that you hadn’t considered before?

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14 thoughts on “SMC: Powerful First Pages

  1. I like viewing the author’s relationship to readers as contractual (after all, readers pay good money for books). That’s part of why it bothers me so much when authors are dismissive of readers’ opinions/criticism. Anyway, Josi’s advice sounds very reasonable, though I’m not sure I follow it entirely (my first chapter is active and present, but my second is backstory, which is vital for readers to know).

    • I think it can work, I think her point was just know why you’re doing it. It worked for “Everneath,” although she labeled each chapter “then” and “now.” It worked pretty well for “If I Stay” too. I think her point is to just make sure we’re not doing info-dump backstories. You’ll know best what works for your story.

  2. Really enjoying your blog, Jae. Informative posts with lost of great content, and this one is no exception. Especially like what you say about hooks vs. gimmicks. There’s nothing better than a great hook and nothing worse than a transparent gimmick.

    • Amen! Glad you’re enjoying all the notes from Storymakers. It was a great conference. And also glad to hear you’re finding helpful stuff on the blog. 🙂

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