The First Page ~ What to Do in 300-500 Words

Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.

Plot, characters, complexity—none of that matters on the first page.  What’s important is to hook your readers.  The cliche is that you need a very good first line, but the truth is that if a reader has picked up your book (or read the synopsis enough to buy the ebook/download a sample) they’re already invested and willing to give you some of their time. Usually, a page at least.  So you have that much time to set the hook and start to reel them in.  Then, complexity and layers and characters can all do their work.

Here’s a few things that I try to do with my first page (about the first 300 to 500 words:

1 – Establish my world.  Obviously, I’m going to need a couple ten thousand words to really build out the world, but I want to give my readers a real sense of what they’re reading.  So, a steampunk books gets some steamalicious gears, or brass patina, or leather and tin goggles out of the gate—even if it’s only in passing.

Tension!  Conflict!  Character!
Meet the Trifecta!

2 – Establish my main character.  The primary character, even if he/she later fades to the background or is subsumed by other character POVs, is introduced and the solid core of that characters is introduced on the first page.  Scoundrels are doing skullduggery.  Paladins are shining their white cloaks.  Harrison Ford is being a good man under extreme pressure.  You get the idea.

3 – Tension/Conflict.  You don’t want your readers on the edge of their seat throughout the entire story, they need some breathing room every now and then.  BUT in introducing the book, there should be some kind of conflict, even minor and easily overcome, that will draw them in and keep the pages turning.  Witnessing an airship docking. Winning (or losing) a high stakes poker game. Being confronted by a police captain for a bust gone horribly wrong.  All of these create tension or establish conflict that will (hopefully) pique readers’ interest.

It is me, or did it just get complicated in here?

Of course, you don’t do these separately.  With 300 to 500 words to work in, you weave these elements together to create a tapestry of world, characters and tension.  With any luck, this informs your first line, and you’ve laid the bait, allowed the reader to nibble, and by word 301 (or 501) you’d set the hook so firmly that no matter how complex, layered or characterific your story, everyone is along for the roller coaster ride.

R.A. McCandless is the author of the urban fantasy Flames of Perdition series.  His first book, Tears of Heaven, was named a 2015 EPIC eBook finalist and winner of the 2014 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader’s Poll by Preditors & Editors.  His latest book, Hell Becomes Her, is available now.  He continues to write genre and historical fiction, battle sprinklers and play with his three boys.

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