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Keeping readers engaged: the first ten pages of your novel

Ask anyone and they’ll likely say that writing a book is a hard job. Ask a writer and they’ll likely say that starting to write a book is a harder job. I can sympathize. For many years I’ve desired to write a book, and my biggest hurdle has been the first five to ten pages. I guess it's because those pages are arguably the most important.

If you’re an indie author, you want to keep readers reading. If you’re querying agents, you want to keep them from throwing your few pages on the slush pile (if you can even get them to ask for the pages to begin with!). In this blog post, I’m going to share with you five simple ways to write a strong first ten pages of your next fiction book no matter what plans you have for publication.

Before I launch into my five tips, I want to start with reassurance. There is a lot of pressure on writers to make their first few pages, their first chapter, and most especially, their first sentence pop. “Grab me from the opening sentence!” readers, agents, and publishers cry. And the writer quivers a bit and takes an honest stab at it, sometimes with strange results that have the opposite effect than they intended.

I recommend considering how your first sentence and first 10-15 pages work together holistically. With a bit of planning and forethought, you can lay your worries about the opening sentence or first few pages to rest and write a beginning to your story that will keep readers engaged until the last page.

1. Decide on your point of view and tense.

This seems like an obvious one, but it may take some time and tinkering to determine which point of view and tense will work best for your novel. Most mass market fiction is written in third person limited, but there are plenty of exceptions. First person can often be found in YA and some contemporary romance. Second person is rarely used, though it could work for a novel (perhaps a mystery or thriller) where the narrative voice is strong and the author wants the reader to feel that they are part of the story.

I’ve written on narrative tense, especially the different forms of past tense, in a previous blog post. Past tense tends to be the most commonly used tense in general, but present tense can be used to successfully immerse the reader in the events of a story, allowing them to experience everything as it unfolds alongside the protagonist.

2. Don’t overload your writing with world-building details.

Every fiction story includes world-building elements, even if it’s a story set in our modern world. World-building encompasses everything from the world's physical setting to its history to its morality to its ecology and everything in between. The temptation can be to info dump at the beginning of a novel so that the reader has the world’s full history, geography, and life norms/rules fully in their mind before they begin reading. But info dumps don’t normally make interesting reading and can cause your reader to stop reading before the story has really begun.

One way to avoid this, is to drip world-building information slowly throughout the story. Introduce world-building elements as required by the plot and needs of the characters. Provide only as much detail as is necessary for the reader to understand that aspect of the world, but take care not to be too heavy-handed. For instance, if you have created a language and

vocabulary for items in your made-up world, and characters refer to those items, you can subtly define them within the description or action rather than providing a "dictionary" definition.

3. Introduce your protagonist.

Some people may suggest starting your story with any “strong” character, but that can leave writers wondering, Isn’t my protagonist my strongest character? I tend to agree with writers here. If a reader doesn’t meet your protagonist within the first page or two, they can be left wondering who it is they should care about in the sea of other characters.

To that end, keep your cast of secondary characters in check. It’s OK to have characters who may receive fleeting references (the just-another-face -in-the-crowd folks who might also have a name). Your secondary characters should play a role in the plot, however, no matter how small. If they don’t help to move the plot forward, they may be best left out entirely.

A few other things to consider when introducing your protagonist—unless you’re writing an epic fantasy where family trees and lineages are important, your reader doesn’t need a family history or chronology to introduce them to the main character. In fact, too much character backstory (think along the lines of expository information about what the character’s childhood or teen years were like) can slow down the pace of the beginning of your novel significantly, causing reader frustration and lack of interest. The same goes for excessive character descriptions. Weave relevant descriptions of your protagonist inconspicuously into the plot but don’t overdo it. Some details are simply superfluous.

Beware worn-out story openers.

You might find books written one hundred or two hundred years ago that started with a weather event (“It was a dark and stormy night …”) or a dream/the protagonist waking up from a dream. These are cliché and outdated ways to begin your story.

That said, it’s not enough for me to say “start your story in the right place.” What is the “right” place? Sometimes a writer might just "know." But this is where professional feedback plays an important role. An author coach or editor, critique group, or feedback partner will be able to help you identify the best place to begin your story.

Take care not to use outdated writing styles and story conventions.

In the vein of not beginning your story using outdated modes, consider a few other “out of fashion” or antiquated storytelling techniques that may cause readers to lose interest. For example, nowadays, unless you’re writing epic fantasy or a historical novel, prologues are quite rare in fiction. As I’ve said before, there are always exceptions to the rules, and a prologue could work well if you have a story whose plot relies on a past event that could be detailed in a prologue flashback. Instead of placing the flashback at the beginning of the novel and breaking up the flow of those first few pages, consider placing it in a prologue so you can jump directly into the action without the change of scene and tense.

A few other odds and ends: reconsider semicolon usage, which is typically not used within fiction, especially not within character dialogue, avoid mimicking older language styles (Shakespeare anyone?), and when querying, list recent (no more than five years old!) comps (with no comparisons to the “greats” of your genre i.e., Tolkien and Rowling for fantasy or YA).



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