Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Act First, Explain Later For A Compelling First Page

 by Jodie Renner

Gone are the days when fiction readers were willing to read pages of description and lead-up before being introduced to the characters and the plot. Readers, agents, and publishers today don't have the time or patience to wade through pages of backstory and description, so you need to grab their interest right from the first sentence and first paragraph of your story.

As James Scott Bell says in Revision and Self-Editing, about the opening paragraphs, “Give us a character in motion.
Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.”

Here are twelve dos and don’ts for making the first page of your novel more compelling:

Don't begin with a long description of the setting or with background information on your main character.
Do begin with dialogue and action; then add any necessary backstory or description in small doses, on a need-to-know basis as you progress through the story.

Don't start with a character other than your protagonist.
Do introduce your protagonist right in the first paragraph. Readers want to know right away whose story it is, which character you’re asking them to identify with.

Don't start with a description of past events.
Do jump right in with what the main character is involved in right now, and introduce some tension or conflict as soon as possible.

Don't start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s.
Do start telling the story from your protagonist’s point of view. It’s best to stay in the protagonist’s point of view for the whole first chapter, or most of it, and don’t change the point of view within a scene.

Don't delay letting your readers get to know your protagonist, or present her in a static, neutral (boring) situation.
Do develop your main character quickly by putting her in a bit of hot water and showing how she reacts to the situation, so readers can empathize and “bond” with her, and start caring enough about her to keep reading.

Don't start with your character all alone, reflecting on his life.
Do have more than one character (two is best) interacting, with action and dialogue. That’s more compelling than reading the thoughts of one person.

Don't start with your protagonist planning a trip, or traveling somewhere, in other words, as a lead-up to an important scene.
Do start in media res — jump right into the middle of the action. Present her in a meaningful scene.

Don't introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages.
Do limit the number of characters you introduce in the first few pages to three or less.

Don't leave the reader wondering what the characters look like.
Do provide a brief description of each character as they’re introduced, or as soon as you can work it in, so the readers can form a picture of him or her in their minds.

Don't have the main character looking in the mirror as a device for describing him/her.
This had been overdone. Do work in the description by relating it to his or her actions or interactions with others.

Don't wait too long to introduce the romantic interest in a romantic suspense, or the villain in a thriller.
To add intrigue, do introduce the hero (love interest) or villain within the first chapter or two.

Don't spend too long leading up to the main conflict or problem the protagonist faces.
Do introduce the main conflict (or at least some significant tension) within the first chapter.

Remember, you can always start your story wherever you want in the draft stage, if it’ll make you feel better. Then in the editing stage, you can go back and cut out the first several paragraphs or pages or even most of the first chapter, so that, in your final draft, your actual story starts after all that lead-up (some of which may appear later, in snippets here and there).
In conclusion, here’s a little rule for writing compelling fiction:

Act first, explain later.


Jodie Renner

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. Her services range from developmental editing to light final copyediting, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog at

Jodie is a member of International Thriller Writers (associate), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Backspace: The Writers Place, The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and The Editors Association of Canada (EAC).

Jodie has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. In fact, Jodie loves traveling so much, she’s thinking of changing her tagline from “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing” to “Have laptop, will travel.”


Anonymous said...

It's always hard for a new writer to start the story where the story starts!
You made some really valid points.
If someone discovers a dead body how much set up do you do?

Ruby Johnson said...

Thanks so much for visiting our blog. Seeing Laurie's comment made me think of my first chapter where the protagonist finds the body of a friend and a contest judge said that I had too much before the inciting incident. I took it out, then was told by another, I didn't have enough of a setup. I finally decided to just put the story aside for a while.

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Hi Anonymous and Ruby,

I'd establish the main character first before the discovery of the body. Readers want to know who to start rooting for early on. They want to know who's story it is, and why they should care enough about that person to follow their story.

Ruby, take that story out again! Introduce your main character in a meaningful way, in a scene with others, with a bit of conflict and intrigue, then have him/her discover the body. Don't give up on that story!

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Also, for more on this topic, please check out my article, Those Crucial First Five Pages, at Crime Fiction Collective,

Kimberly Walton said...

Thank you, Jodie! This is very helpful!

My MC starts at a bank, depositing a large sum of money that she acquired in a bit of a dubious way. Even though it opens in that way, the inciting incident is quick to happen (by page three). Is that considered static?

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

My first manuscript (first version) started with a main character pacing his office, contemplating the bad predicament he just put himself into. Totally the wrong spot! My second manuscript started in the right spot, dramatic inciting incident, but didn't have nearly enough deep POV for readers to get connected. Of all the ones you listed above, I think I've done all of them at one point or another. Leave it to me to use every bad habit out there!

Caroline Clemmons said...

Jodie, that's a great checklist. I have to slap my hands to prevent a cast of thousands. Thanks for sharing. That's a nice list to print and save by the computer.

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Thanks for your comments, Kim, Susan and Caroline.

Kim,I like your opening scene. Make sure to include dialogue and thoughts and her feelings (nervousness) and other sensory details, to bring your MC to life for the reader quickly.

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