Most writers know that what’s on your first pages can make or break your book.
If your first pages are boring or confusing, the reader will turn to something else. So many questions come up about how to craft engaging first pages, including how to balance backstory with action, how to create and introduce an interesting and relatable protagonist, and how to present a situation that hooks the reader from the get-go
One issue that arises peripherally in relation to all these questions is precisely who should appear on your first pages. Usually your protagonist. That’s typically a given, unless you start with a prologue that involves an earlier or later period in time or involves another perspective to your story (outside the protagonist’s experience).
Who else might the reader want, or need, to see in those first pages? What if you’re writing a story with multiple points of view? Whose perspective should you start with?
If you think of your opening scene or chapter in terms of the most valuable real estate in your story, you also want to think carefully about who, amongst your entire cast of characters, you choose to populate those pages. Do you want to waste that page space on a minor character who may not appear again and isn’t very significant to the rest of the story? Probably not. Likewise, you probably don’t want to introduce too many characters at once, at the risk of overwhelming a reader as she orients herself in the broader narrative.
Is there a perfect formula for how many, and which, characters to introduce in your first scene? Of course not. That would be too easy, and it would depend on the story too. However, who appears on the first pages is a question you should think carefully about. The answer is likely to evolve as you go through later revisions of the piece. In a first draft you may believe it’s absolutely essential for a particular character to appear in the opening pages, and by the third or fourth draft, you’ve realized that character isn’t going to be the major player you initially thought.
A good question to start with is: who is most important for the reader to see in those opening pages, and why?
That question can be broken down into sub-questions like:
- Which other characters reflect the most important aspects of your protagonist’s character?
- Which other characters best illuminate the meaning of your opening scene?
- Which other characters most challenge your protagonist’s view of herself in ways that are relevant to the story?
- Will your antagonist appear in the opening pages or is that something you’ll save for later?
And of course there’s a question as to whether you want anyone on those opening pages other than the protagonist. Maybe the story opens with the protagonist dealing with something on her own. I’ll give an example of that in a bit.
First, let’s try an exercise:
Think about some of the opening scenes of your favorite stories. Which characters appear on those pages? How do they impact the story? Could the author have made better choices?
Take The Hunger Games, for example. The story starts with Katniss, the protagonist, waking up on the day of the reaping and going out to hunt. The first thing she notes in the very first paragraph is the absence of her sister Prim in their shared bed. This emphasizes Prim and her importance to Katniss from the very opening moments of the story: the fact that Prim is missing is exactly the issue that drives the whole story. Katniss’s whole narrative drive in the book, in fact in all three books, is her need to protect her sister. Prim is present through her very absence in that opening paragraph, and her absence gives the reader a sense of the stakes and drive for Katniss.
But Katniss doesn’t spend pages dwelling on her missing sister. She sneaks out to hunt with her best friend Gale who she describes as: “the only person with whom I can be myself.” Even though Katniss is telling the story in the first person point of view, her interactions with Gale show the reader another side of Katniss. Through his eyes, we see her choices (she could run away with him, but chooses not to), what’s at stake for her, and what she struggles with on a daily basis in the world she inhabits.
As the first chapter unfolds, more characters are introduced, but they’re introduced fairly carefully, one by one, as the story leads to the reaping where the whole town shows up for the ceremony. By the time that happens, the reader already knows who Katniss is, what’s important to her, why she can’t escape her life (she can’t run away from her responsibilities to Prim). In other words, the reader is sufficiently oriented in the bizarre and unusual, and incredibly dangerous, world in which Katniss finds herself.
If the book had started out at the reaping ceremony, the reader would likely have been horribly confused: too many characters, too much going on. If it had started out with Katniss and her mother and sister getting up and having breakfast together, we would have found out about Katniss’s closeness to Prim but possibly not much else of the wider world. Taking her outside to hunt with Gale gives enough of a sense of the world, who Katniss is, and what she’s up against to prepare the reader for the reaping scene, and to allow the reader to understand the stakes when Prim’s name is called.
You can do the same exercise both with books that have worked for you and books that haven’t.
Can you think of any books with only one character in the first chapter? What about The Martian by Andy Weir? The protagonist, astronaut Mark Watney, is alone, stranded on Mars. He’s the only character on the page and the one telling us his story via his journal entries. Why does this work? Largely because of the situation he’s in and his narrative voice. We, as readers, don’t necessarily need to see any other characters on the page right then because Mark’s situation is so engaging and dangerous that we want to see what he’s going to do. The fact that he’s stranded and alone is the whole point of the story so we need to get the sense of how alone he is, and how he copes with the life-threatening situation in which he finds himself.
While there are no clear rules about who, or how many, characters should appear in your opening pages, remember that those pages are the prime real estate of your story, the pages that can make or break the book’s success. Think carefully about who you want to invite onto those pages and make sure they earn their page space. And don’t be afraid to try those opening scenes in different ways with different characters. Ask critique partners which version has the most impact, and why. Casting your opening pages isn’t an exact science. Experimentation can lead to serendipitous results.
Jacqui has published flash pieces and short stories both under her own name and under the pen-name K C Maguire. Her debut novel, Inside the Palisade, a young adult sci-fi story was published by Lodestone (U.K.) in 2015 and won the Purple Dragonfly Award for science-fiction and fantasy in 2016, as well as placing in the Houston Writer’s Guild fiction writing contest the previous year. Jacqui holds an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts as well as fiction writing certificates from UCLA Extension and Stanford Online. She is a popular speaker on legal issues for authors and illustrators, and her new book Law & Authors: A Legal Handbook for Writers will be published in 2019 by University of California Press. Jacqui can be found online at authography.org
Are you interested in learning more about revving up your opening pages? Join Jacqui for her class: Beginnings with Jacqueline Lipton ~ November 5 – December 2