The “Sweet 16” First Lines of Your Manuscript
by Chris Mandeville
The first page of your manuscript contains only sixteen lines, and this “sweet sixteen” is an essential tool for hooking a reader. If Page One doesn’t capture the interest of the editor, agent, or book browser, chances are your story will be set aside, so it’s important to make those first sixteen lines as successful as possible.
A successful first page engages the reader, grounds the reader, and makes the reader want to turn the page.
Let’s break that down:
Engaging the reader is the job of the point-of-view (POV) character, so the first page must reveal something about that character the reader can identify with.
Grounding the reader in time and space is the realm of setting, but the goal nowadays is to sprinkle in the bare minimum necessary to set the stage.
It’s typically plot and conflict that make a reader turn to Page Two.
I refer to these elements—character, setting, and plot/conflict—as “the Trifecta,” and I consider them essential to a successful first page.
More often than not, the main conflict in the story is too complex for the opening page without resorting to explainery and backstory. So to get conflict on the first page, the writer can introduce a “bridging conflict.” In Writing the Breakout Novel , Donald Maass defines it as a temporary conflict that makes the opening material matter. Often, it relates thematically to the main conflict in the book.
A bridging conflict is a temporary conflict that makes opening material matter.
The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger opens with a bridging conflict. The protagonist, Andrea, is trying to drive an expensive, unfamiliar, stick-shift sports car through traffic in midtown Manhattan. The problem is, she’s failing miserably—she nearly crashes, breaks the heel off her $700 shoe, and stalls the car in an intersection surrounded by drivers honking and swearing at her. This scene relates thematically to the overall plot: Andrea trying to succeed in the fast-paced world of fashion journalism, where her primary obstacle is her own lack of grace under pressure. But rather than a boring set up or explanation of the plot, the writer draws us into Andrea’s world via the bridging conflict.
So “plot/conflict” in the Trifecta can be—and often is—a bridging conflict.
In addition to the Trifecta, successful first pages often include tension, a hook, voice, genre indicators, and a great first line. A first page doesn’t need all these elements to be successful, but often a great first page hits each of them.
ELEMENTS OF A GREAT FIRST PAGE
Great first line
Let’s examine each of these elements, using a real first page as an example: My Favorite Husband by Pam McCutcheon.
Looking at the novel in standard manuscript format, here are the first sixteen lines:
It ought to be the happiest day of my life.
It ought to be the saddest.
It was both. It was neither. It was . . . confusing.
Kelly Richmond Vincent, soon to be Kelly Richmond Vincent Preston, sighed as she stared out the window of the small anteroom at the chapel. She just wanted to get it over with.
“What’s the sigh for?” Scott asked. “The wedding or the funeral?”
Kelly gazed at her brother who lounged against the door, looking every inch the suave, careless player he pretended to be. She hesitated, not knowing how to answer. Finally, she said, “Yes.” The answer fit her mood and the situation.
Scott grinned then dropped his pose to sling an arm around her shoulders. “What d’ya say we skip out on both and fly to the beach?”
“Any beach. Doesn’t matter. We’ll just go, far away from this cold Colorado winter and all this . . . stuff.”
God help her, for one brief moment, she actually considered it.
Our POV character, Kelly, is about to be married and attend a funeral. She’s conflicted about how she’s supposed to feel, and she’d like to get it over with or even run away from it all. We get a glimpse of her personality when she answers “yes” to an either/or question. Her thoughts and dialogue indicate she’s got a sense of humor.
The first sixteen lines of this story do a good job making me feel connected to Kelly. I identify with having conflicting feelings, and I empathize with wanting to escape. I respect that she doesn’t actually run away, even though she’s tempted. I like her. I’m on board so far.
Kelly is in the small anteroom of a chapel, staring out a window. Her brother is lounging against the door. They’re in Colorado. It’s wintertime.
Because there’s so much to accomplish in the limited real estate on the first page, writers must choose carefully what to include and what to leave out. In our example, the author efficiently provides the broad strokes of the setting with a few specific words that have vivid connotations—most readers can construct a mental picture given “Colorado winter,” “chapel,” and “small anteroom.” The name of the chapel, the specific locale, and the time of day aren’t included because they’d add little value and aren’t necessary for the reader to understand the basic setting.
When I read the passage the first time, I didn’t even notice the setting being trickled in. I simply absorbed the details, and a picture formed in my mind. This is exactly the way we want setting conveyed on a first page.
My Favorite Husband is a romance novel, so you’d be correct to assume the main plot is about the protagonist overcoming obstacles to find true love. But there’s nothing on the first page that directly pertains to this—Kelly doesn’t ruminate about love, nor is her love interest present.
Instead, we have a bridging conflict: Kelly is about to attend a funeral on her wedding day. Her goal is (presumably) to cope with what should be the happiest day of her life coinciding with what should be the saddest. What’s getting in the way—the conflict—is that her emotions are confusing and she doesn’t know how to deal with the situation.
This scenario is not complicated. No backstory is needed to bring the reader up to speed. It’s a clear-cut (if unusual) set of circumstances that presents the character with a problem. This problem makes the opening material matter without delving into the main conflict of the novel.
Tension is what the reader feels when the character faces conflict.
I felt some tension when reading our sample page because I related to Kelly. Not a great deal of tension, but this is a romantic comedy so I’m not expecting life-or-death on the first page. It’s entirely appropriate that I’m not worried about Kelly being kidnapped or falling off a cliff, but rather am concerned for her emotional wellbeing. It feels like the right degree of tension for this type of story.
However, this level of tension may not be enough on its own to compel me to turn the page, which brings us to…
The first page of My Favorite Husband has two kinds of hooks—one that raises a question, another that relates to the plot. For the plot, I want to know how Kelly is going to deal with the situation at hand. But this alone isn’t terribly compelling because there’s not a lot at stake. For me, the more effective hook is the question “whose funeral is it?” and the related “why is it at the same time and place as the wedding?” To find out the answers, I must turn the page.
The efficacy of a hook depends upon how well the writer handles the Trifecta. If the reader feels connected to the character, grounded in the setting, and tension about the conflict, s/he is more likely to turn the page because s/he cares.
Voice is important on the first page because it makes a promise to the reader about the style of storytelling in the book as a whole.
In our sample, the author strikes a lighthearted, conversational tone in an unfortunate situation. The character comes across as witty and a little playful even in the midst of an emotional crisis. The important thing is that the voice on the first page is indeed representative of the story, which means a reader who enjoys that voice won’t be disappointed as the story progresses.
A good first page should convey the genre of the story via “genre indicators.” The tone, the language, the age and interests of the protagonist, and/or the setting should be indicative of the genre whether it’s high fantasy or a cozy mystery. Included in this are any expectations specific to the genre. For example, if a first page portrays a murder, especially from the killer’s perspective, this tells me I’m likely reading suspense. If it turns out it’s actually a young adult romance, I’ll be disappointed because my expectations have not been met.
I already revealed that My Favorite Husband is a romantic comedy. But if I hadn’t, could you tell from the first page? The setting—a chapel on the protagonist’s wedding day—is appropriate for a romantic comedy. The character is a conflicted bride—again this works for romantic comedy. Where we zero in on romantic comedy is with the plot/conflict. A bride attending a funeral and her own wedding in the same chapel on the same day is a bit absurd, which is in line with romantic comedy. Granted, this could be the start of a tragedy, but the voice tips my expectations toward comedy. The author doesn’t hit me over the head with genre indicators, but there’s nothing to contraindicate the genre. This is enough to keep me turning a few more pages until it’s confirmed I’m in romantic comedy territory.
Great first line
Starting a novel with a great first line isn’t required. Take The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The first line is: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. In my opinion, it’s not a great first line, but the first page of this novel is wildly successful judging by the number of books sold.
The first line of My Favorite Husband is: It ought to be the happiest day of my life.
This isn’t a bad first line. It immediately sets up a conflict and a question: it should be the happiest day of this character’s life, but it’s not, and why?
By itself the first line is decent, but when paired with the next line, it improves vastly:
It ought to be the happiest day of my life.
It ought to be the saddest.
Together those lines are great. Sure, the author could have combined these sentences to create one line, and she might have if she were hung up on the notion of creating a Great First Line. But those lines have a lot more impact separately, which ultimately is more important. The lesson here is that you don’t need to jam-pack your first sentence or “thesaurusize” your words. It’s more important that your first line be in harmony with the rest of the page.
Let’s revisit our list of elements that make a great first page:
Great first line
All in hall, I think My Favorite Husband does an excellent job at handling the Trifecta (character, setting, plot/conflict), as well as providing genre indicators that it’s a romantic comedy, a voice appropriate to this genre, a great first pair of lines, enough tension to keep me interested, and a hook that compels me to turn the page. In sum, the sweet sixteen first lines of this book did their job: they engaged me as a reader and made me want to know what happens next.
If the first page of My Favorite Husband hooked you, too, and you want to turn the page, you’re in luck: this novel is free on Kobo!
What’s your favorite novel? Take a look at the first page. Does it hit the elements I’ve identified? If it does—or more importantly, if it doesn’t—what makes it effective? What made you want to turn the page and keep reading? I’d love to see your findings in the comments!
As you revise the first page of your work-in-progress, I hope you’ll keep the above elements in mind. The first page is a small parcel of real estate, and it can be challenging to squeeze in all the bits and pieces gracefully. But if you stick with your voice, and put your back into making the first sixteen lines great, your efforts will be rewarded with readers who turn the page.
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block.