It twas a cold and snow Saturday when I sat down with my manuscript and stared at the scrawled upon first page. A number of questions came up that I could not answer.
So, in a fit of pique I did the unthinkable.
I put on real clothes and went to the library to RESEARCH the matter.
Never live with an academic. You pick up terrible, terrible habits.
But since I went through all the effort, let me share what I gathered.
The Method: I went to the sf/f section the library and grabbed novels by well known urban fantasy, trying to hit a number of the biggest named authors. I grabbed the earliest books in their series, opened to the first page, read through, and made notes on the first page only. First pages are arguably the most important part of a book. While a lot of readers might open a book to a section at random or buy a book based only on the book jacket. But I and a lot of other readers, make a decision based on whether the first few pages grab our attention. And, most importantly for people in my shoes, the first few pages are inevitably going to be what gets an agent or an editor to request a full manuscript.
Ideally, I wanted to get the first books in their series, as that’s what I’m writing and the rules are a little different when you’re on the second or third book of a series. But A) most of those were inevitably checked out, and B) the rules aren’t THAT different because you can’t assume every reader has read every book in your series. In fact, its more financially beneficial if you build a series which catches unexpected readers who are looking for something to read in an airport bookstore. So every book has to be catchy from the get go and ought to explain anything that happened in prior book well enough that the reader doesn’t HAVE to read the first books to enjoy the work set in front of them. Thus, you get the information based on what I could grab from the library at three thirty on a Saturday.
The notes below are judgement on the first PAGE of the novels and in no way represent my full opinion of the books selected. Some of these books, I rag on the first page but really actually liked the book. Some of these books have great first pages and weren’t books I liked. Most of these books I’ve read in full, but not all of them, and I did my best not to let knowledge of the further novel influence this reading. If you like, you can skip my notes and go straight to my basic conclusions at the end of the post. If you want to follow along, most of these novels have their first pages up on Amazon as teasers. Which. I realized probably could have saved me a trip to the library. Too late now.
“The Outlaw Demon Wails” by Kim Harrison (#6 in series)
*By the end of the first paragraph, we’re introduced to a point of conflict (our main character lacks money).
*In the same paragraph, we’re introduced to the supernatural elements of the world. The first paragraph discusses wands. We could be in a normal world and our heroine is just hanging out in a New Age shop, staring at wands, except that she refers to them as a work expense. So our heroine could, in theory, use wands at work, even though she currently doesn’t due to funds.
*We have also, by the end of paragraph one, established where and what: Our character is at a store, shopping.
*For the rest of the page, we get our characters name, dropped by her mother. We also establish that she has a mother and is out shopping with her, for fun. And they are discussing Halloween costumes.
*And that further develops our setting, grounding us in a time of year. Its fall, October, and the novel plot will probably revolve around the importance of Halloween. Because we’re talking urban fantasy and Halloween is NEVER a red herring in this genre.
*A secondary character, Jenks is introduced. The narrative isn’t dragged to a halt to describe him in detail, instead we’re given a brief, but telling description of him. He’s small, winged, and leaves gold dust behind. So this furthers our sense of the supernatural world here, we’re in a place where small, winged people go shopping with other people’s mothers. It also, very quickly, establishes his personality as a bit of a sweary jerk.
*We’re given a question that keeps us reading: What is our main character going to wear for Halloween? Frankly, it seems like a silly question, especially if you look at some of the OTHER questions that get proposed by other novels I looked at. The thing is, it worked. I turned the page to find out the answer to that question. I did want to know, even as stupid and inconsequential of a question that it seemed.
“Blood Bound” by Patricia Briggs (#2 in series)
*First paragraph establishes a lot about the main character. She owns her own business that runs during the day. It also establishes a snarky, humorous voice for our narrator: “anyone calling this time of night had better be dying.” By the end of the page, we know she’s a mechanic.
*We also get a setting of place and time right off the bat. She’s been woken up by a call, so we’re starting in her bed at night. At least, we presume its her bed, though with cellphones, this is no longer a given in our society.
*And we are quickly introduced to the supernatural as the caller, Stefan, is declared as having been dead long before the call was made. We know nothing else about Stefan, except he’s mild over the phone and requires a favor.
*And that is our question as the reader: What kind of favor does Stefan want of our daylight mechanic at three in the morning?
“Cry Wolf” by Patricia Briggs (technically first in series, though there is a novella that proceeds it)
*Hoo boy, this one starts with a prologue. Prologues change the game. They’re either an explanation of prior books or, in the case of this one, an establishing shot/teaser of things that won’t be significant until later in the story. And, I’ll be honest, I don’t like the first page of this one and I didn’t when I first read it. The rest of the book is good, but prologues are like a first page that are three to six pages long.
*Anyway, the prologue first page sets us up in Montana, in October. We learn a lot about our character very quickly. He’s ex-military, older, and he’s a crazy loner who lives wild in the woods. We don’t know why, only that he does and he’s stalking some kid who is taking samples of bear scat. The questions raised are mostly what the hell is this crazy guy going to do to this poor kid with no one else around for miles. At the same time, it paints our crazy ex-military guy as crazy, but sympathetic, harmless crazy. Not “I’m going to skin you and wear you like a hat” crazy. It’s unclear and that can get us turning the page, but on a whole, not a good example. Prologues. No establishment of anything supernatural on the first page. Unless our guy is secretly supernatural, but there’s no indication that he is. Eesh, prologues are tricky.
*So if we DISCOUNT the prologue and assume the first page of Chapter One as the real first page, we get names, location, relationships, Again, not really the best first page, this one is something of an info dump. But it sets up our main character as a terrified young woman who is reliant on Charles, a man she met only a few days ago. …Yeah, okay, that set up feels icky, doesn’t it? (The book itself is not icky, I feel the need to say, I actually LOVE Patricia Briggs’ work.) It does, however, raise a crap ton of questions that drive the reader to keep going.
*We are also told that hey, yes, werewolves are a thing in this book. Definitely a thing, the driver of the car is the WEREWOLF of werewolves. So, there’s a lot of interesting built up, a lot of questions to answer, and a lot of personality established quickly.
“Dead Beat” by Jim Butcher (Seventh in series)
*”On the whole, we’re a murderous race.” WELL, that’s an attention grabbing first line. A lot to be said for an attention grabbing first line!
*And along with that line, we find that our main character and narrator is currently empathizing with Cain, the First Murderer. Yeah, that’s a question to driver the reader on to the next page!
*We get setting! Damn do we get setting. In a lot of ways, we get a little too much setting as there’s a rather detailed description of the apartment on the first page. This works because we’re told that ‘this is the norm’ and then told that things are NOT the normal which leads us to wonder why things aren’t normal and what has changed. Still, I don’t think taking a whole paragraph to describe the apartment in excruciating detail is the best use of a first page.
“Storm Born” by Richelle Mead (First in series)
*A hilarious and intriguing starting line: “I’d seen weirder things than a haunted shoe, but not many.” This line does a lot of work. It establishes a sense of humor. It establishes supernatural elements, we’re in a world where shoes can be haunted, though it’s hardly common. And it dumps a bunch of questions because WHAT THE HELL HAUNTED SHOE YES I WANT TO KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON!
*After that first line, we’re introduced to our heroine, who is armed to the teeth with a gun and two athames. This tells us a lot about her, that she’s expecting trouble and also, with the athames, likely a witch and certainly some sort of supernatural hunter.
*Setting is established as being in an office, but is not embellished beyond that.
“Gunmetal Magic” by Ilona Andrews (5.5 in series, don’t ask)
*HOLY CRAP THIS ONE STARTS OUT HARDCORE, our main character’s head is being SLAMMED INTO THE GROUND–
*Oh, wait, this is a dream? Hm. Dreams are always an awkward way to start out a book, because there’s nothing more off putting than having an entire scene built up, only to have it SUDDENLY turned out to be a dream. This one works, though, because there’s no “and then she wakes up!” moment. We are told, before the end of the page, that this is a dream. So instead, we’re introduced to what kind of things our character dreams which is informative and builds a lot about our character.
*On the other hand, what we learn about this character, primarily, on the first page, is that she was abused as a child. We also learn that she killed her abusers, which establishes some of who she is now. But mostly, we learn about the then, not about who we are actually encountering as a heroine.
*Oh, and there’s shapeshifting which COULD be our signifier of oh hey, supernatural, but because it happens in a dream, we don’t know if that’s just the weirdness of dreams or an actual memory.
What you MUST have:
1) A question that is not answered. This is the most important thing for the first few pages, because a question is what gets pages turning as you’re building up your characters as interesting people your reader wants to know and your world as a place they want to spend time with. It doesn’t have to be the question at the heart of your novel, in fact, it rarely IS that question. It can be a little question, like what Halloween costume is your main character going to wear or it can be something more prominent such as why does your narrator sympathize with the First Murderer.
Things You Ought To Have:
1) Establish that we’re in a supernatural world. Some hint, some bit of thing that shows what genre it belongs to. It can be as subtle as a wand for work or as blatant as “this is the big kahuna of werewolves, driving me around town.” Your reader probably knows they’re reading an urban fantasy based on the back of the book. But they don’t know the inner workings of YOUR world. Is this a world of haunted shoes? Or crazy shapeshifters? You don’t need to and in fact, should NOT info dump how your world works, but give us some indication of what we can expect from the supernatural in the rest of your novel.
2) Introduce your main character and give your reader something to like or empathize with. If this is a first person narration, establish your narrator’s voice. Give the reader something to connect with immediately. Put your character in a hard situation that calls for empathy or make it funny, something that let’s the reader like or feel for your main character right off the bat. You can have a novel where the first character you introduce isn’t the main character, but readers expect that the first character we meet is the main character. Anything else is liable to throw the reader off, unless handled well.
3) Interaction with others. Basically, start with a scene, because the first thing you should do is SHOW us your world and your character. Don’t TELL us about your world or character. Start by showing us and an easy way to do that is to show the interaction between your main character and someone else.
Things that, in spite of what I thought, you don’t need:
ACTION! Not actually required for your first few pages to be chalk full of action and adventure. In fact, in urban fantasy genre, it’s more common to start with a scene that sets up characters, which may lead into action quickly, but not in the first few pages. Which, basically, answered one of my big questions so I don’t have to write in unexpected zombie attacks right from the start.
So that’s the advice I collected from my research. Now I should go work on my actual first page.