There are no set rules for an opening line of a novel. Nearly anything goes—be it description, dialogue, or a statement of philosophical truth. But that flexibility does not apply to the first page of your novel. All good novels contain several essential elements that immerse the reader in the story world and keep them there, ideally to the end of the book. Here’s a breakdown of the five key components to include in the first page of your novel.
1. Your Protagonist
As our Editor-in-Chief, Josiah DeGraaf, helpfully explained last year, the novel is distinguished from other storytelling art forms by its focus on the inner lives of its characters. Principally, you will be selling your story on the personality of your main character, and it’s best to introduce him or her to the audience as soon as possible to begin building that connection.
There are two ways to handle this. The first is to start with an intriguing description of your character. Don’t say that Marcus Langley is five foot nine with sandy-brown hair and azure-blue eyes. Your readers’ imaginations can supply those details easily enough. Instead, tell readers he’s a mushroom hunter. Or an explosives expert in a special-ops unit. Those few words will fascinate readers more than entire paragraphs delineating physical details.
The second option is to skip the initial description and dive into the heart of the action. But more on that later in point number four.
There are of course exceptions to the rule of protagonist introduction. Prologues are the main offenders, but they can be utilized effectively. I recently browsed through a novel titled Redshirts, which chronicled the lives of several junior Starfleet officers desperately trying to avoid being killed (as any Trekkie will know, wearing a red Starfleet shirt is basically a death sentence). True to form, the opening page of the novel introduced a likable Redshirt on his first away mission, only to have the poor chap die horribly while his face was eaten by Borgovian Land Worms. The real main character didn’t appear until the first chapter. This was a clever choice on the part of the author, as it succinctly demonstrated the entire premise of the novel.
2. Your Protagonist’s Need
Someone once defined conflict as the lifeblood of a story with the protagonist’s goal as its compass. Without a clear goal, your novel may be reduced to a random string of events lacking a plot or purpose. Your main character drives your story, and his internal need guides his actions. Thus that need is crucial enough to earn it a place in the opening paragraphs of your story.
On Jane Eyre’s first page, we see the heroine’s quest for love and belonging as she is cruelly excluded from a family gathering. Dr. Watson’s need for purpose in his friendless life is foreshadowed as he determines to find a new abode in A Study in Scarlet. Your depiction of your protagonist’s driving need may be subtler than these examples, but nevertheless its inclusion will add depth and richness to your story, with the added bonus of increasing reader engagement.
Readers who are thoroughly immersed in a story aren’t just interpreting printed symbols on a physical page to construe abstract scenarios and concepts (though you have to admit that is incredible on its own). They’re visualizing the story in their minds—the characters, the location, even the lighting. The more mentally absorbed readers are, the better, and as a writer your job is to fuel this participation by feeding them the details their imaginations need.
This does not mean information dumping. Massive blocks of dialogue-less text are generally a sure way to send attention spans fleeing. All that is necessary are a few tips to indicate where the characters are, what time period it is, and possibly what universe. Provide enough information to let readers see the story without smothering them with extraneous detail.
Here’s a rule that’s almost impossible to break: something must be happening. It doesn’t have to be catastrophic. A funeral, a hunting trip, or a 111th birthday party; nearly anything will do the trick, provided that you’ve followed rule number one and introduced a compelling main character.
This action doesn’t have to be your inciting incident, which probably won’t occur until later in the story. Its chief purpose is to give your protagonist an opportunity to reveal her character in an interesting manner. The genre you’re writing will likely govern how fast-paced this conflict is (technically, a heated argument between sweethearts and an invasion of hundreds of fire-breathing dragons both classify as “action”). But something must be out of the ordinary. Your readers are here to be entertained, excited, enthralled. A character broodily washing dishes and stewing about how much she dislikes the task is, however relatable, dull.
Just as with establishing your setting, the idea is to achieve balance. Too much action and you’ll lose your readers, who haven’t had a chance to become acquainted with or emotionally invested in your characters. Conversely, excluding action will bore your audience.
5. Point of View and Tense
Of the five elements to feature on your first page, this one ought to be the simplest. Decide which point of view you want to write in and whether to use past or present tense. Many authors do this completely unconsciously. And then you have writers like me, who opt to write in present tense for a change and then realize that at some point all the verbs started ending in “ed.” But I digress.
Third-person past tense has been the staple point of view (POV) for novels since the invention of the art, but has recently been rivaled in popularity by first-person present tense, at least in the genre of young-adult fiction. The opening sentences of The Hunger Games are a perfect example.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.”
You could easily rewrite this to demonstrate the more traditional third-person, past-tense approach.
“When Katniss woke up, the other side of the bed was cold. Her fingers stretched out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.”
This is purely a stylistic choice, but be aware that the POV and tense you choose will come with both benefits and limitations. Suzanne Collins made first-person present tense work in her first novel because of Katniss’s belligerent character and the fast-paced nature of The Hunger Games. But this style suited the two sequels less because of their slower pace and Katniss’s depressed and angry personality. Frankly, it was suffocating to be inside her head for long periods of time. The same problems are evident in Veronica Roth’s popular-but-incredibly-poorly-written Divergent series.
Third-person past tense is the safer option, as it will increase your novel’s chances of aging well. However, don’t be afraid to experiment with different tenses and multiple points of view.
The first page of your novel, if it’s written poorly, is all that your future readers will ever see. You want to ensure that they turn to the next page without even noticing doing so, and that they’re enticed to continue reading after they’ve reached the end of the Amazon preview or run out of time to browse at Chapters. Armed with these five elements, you should be well-equipped to write a beginning that will snare potential readers and keep them flipping pages until the end.