Your Novel’s First Page (Note: This article first appeared in Readers’ Favorite Reviews) Tracking ID: UA-121606870-1
By Paul F. Murray, Wealthy Affiliate member
Here are two hypothetical beginnings to a novel:
Beginning No. 1
Caroline heard the knock on her front door from her upstairs bedroom. It was probably next door neighbor and widow Mrs. McGillicuddy again. As her dementia worsened, Mrs. McGillicuddy had gotten in the habit of knocking on Caroline’s door once or twice a week between 7 and 8:00 a.m., thinking she was knocking on the door of her good friend Mrs. Neilland. Living alone, Caroline was getting fed up with Mrs. McGillicuddy waking her up anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour early.
It was totally dark in the bedroom, however. Caroline looked at her alarm clock—it was 4 a.m. in the morning, or more precisely as Caroline’s eyes adjusted, 3:55 a.m. Whoever was knocking on her front door, it was not Mrs. McGillicuddy. No way would Mrs. McGillicuddy have been out wandering around the neighborhood at 3:55 a.m. Caroline suddenly felt a nervous shiver.
There was another knock on the front door, harder and more insistent this time. Caroline felt her breaths coming quicker. “Who is it?” she demanded, clasping her hands together.
“Who is it? I’m not coming to the door until I know who’s there,” Caroline shouted. She hurried out of bed and walked to the upstairs balustrade. “This isn’t funny! Who’s there at the door?”
Again, no answer. Caroline wondered if it might be Jack. She knew Jack wanted to get back together with her after his latest floozy girlfriend left him. Jack liked to stay out late. But now Caroline recalled how Jack had never stopped by later than a few minutes after 2 a.m., when the bars closed. No—whoever was down there knocking on the front door, it wasn’t Jack.
Another knock on the front door. Then, heavy knocking, as if someone was pounding on the front door with a fist. Caroline was about to ask, again, who was at her front door. She thought better of it and kept quiet. Nobody that she knew, no friend of hers, would be banging on her door at 3:55 a.m. and refusing to say who they were and why they were there.
Caroline rushed back into her bedroom and grabbed her cellphone. It was time to call 911 and get a police car there pronto. Caroline mouthed a quick prayer that her slow-reacting cellphone would open up before whoever was at her front door pounded it open to come inside the house…
Beginning No. 2
Caroline heard her alarm clock blaring and she hammered the “off” button with her fist. It was 4 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Caroline hated the idea of getting up so early, but she knew that the reason why she made an extra hundred dollars a month was because she was willing to get to the call center by 5 a.m., unlike most of the employees who didn’t show up until 7 a.m. or even 7:30. The call center manager had told her when she’d been hired that a lot of people got up early for work and contacted the call center with their technology questions before heading out to their jobs. The time between 5:30 and 8 in the morning was actually a pretty busy time at the call center. Things then quieted down after about 8 a.m.
A microwaved cup of coffee from the fridge got Caroline partly awake. Good and black. It was only Wednesday, after all. Cream and sugar in her coffee were her reward for making it to Thursday and then Friday, and then Saturday, of course. Sunday it was back to black coffee, with the work week looming ahead of her. Caroline tasted the coffee—hot, a little bitter, but that was okay. The taste matched Caroline’s mood at this early hour.
Turning on the television, Caroline caught a glimpse through heavy eyes of the weather report for the day ahead. Sunny in the morning, possible thunderstorms in the afternoon. Why did the morning weather lady always have to be so cheerful? When did she get up—at 2 a.m.? Or maybe the weather lady had been up all night and she was bright and perky at 4:10 a.m. because she knew that her shift would soon be over and she could go home and get some sleep.
Caroline blew on the black coffee and took another slurp. Still a little too hot. But it would be better tomorrow. Thursday coffee always tasted better. Friday coffee was better still, and not just because of the cream and sugar. Friday was Friday, after all…
Which beginning is better?
Which beginning do you think was better? Which beginning drew you right into the story and made you want to turn the page to find out what happens next? No. 1 or No. 2? Most likely, you would say No. 1 was the better beginning because it confronts the main character, and thus the reader, with an immediate situation of danger and suspense. Who was at Caroline’s door? Was it Jack after having been out later than usual and drunk as a skunk? Or was it some stranger out to rob Caroline after having read in the newspaper about the big lottery money she’d won? Or was it simply Mrs. McGillicuddy? Do the police reach Caroline’s house in time to help?
On the other hand, Beginning No. 2 may have caused readers to put the book down and take a nap. But if that’s the case, then why have I as a reader had to read so many more novels that had a No. 2-type beginning than a No. 1-type beginning? I’ve been reading novels for over 50 years, and I can honestly say that books with No. 2-type beginnings have far outnumbered the books I’ve read with No. 1-type beginnings, and for the life of me I don’t know why. Beginning No. 1 could be the start of a highly engaging novel about lottery winners and what they have to deal with—how every beggar, debt-burdened parent, thief, and ex-boyfriend or girlfriend for 200 miles around comes knocking on their door. Beginning No. 2, on the other hand, takes the reader through several ho-hum chapters of “slice-of-life” narration involving Caroline’s callers on her job, and how she likes to ride her bike in the late afternoon after work and how she enjoys counting the number of the different species of birds that she sees on her daily bike trips. The first several chapters of a novel like that might be of interest to an ornithologist, but would anyone else want to keep reading after the first few chapters?
Too many authors put all their eggs in one basket—the Big Finish. They think they can keep readers reading through multiple chapters of heavens-knows-what, expecting them to keep on reading through the humdrum boring stuff until they get to the Big Finish, with all of its fireworks and flash. Maybe, ten chapters in, Caroline meets a handsome young doctor on one of her bike trips and discovers that he likes her because of a shared interest in birds and vanishing habitat and a desire to do something together about it. Yes, that’s exciting reading starting halfway or even two-thirds of the way through the novel. But how many readers have put the book down for good after the first four or five boring chapters and thus never gave themselves a chance to get to the Big Finish?
The moral is: make something happen throughout your novel, not just in the second half of the novel or in the last few chapters. Give readers (and prospective agents and publishers) a reason to keep reading after page one or two. Why should readers care that Caroline drinks coffee in the morning? Doesn’t everybody? Give them a reason to care. Maybe as Caroline becomes less groggy, she remembers that her new prescription medication can produce severe side effects if combined with caffeine, and she becomes correspondingly terrified. Or, maybe Caroline hears on the morning news about the proposed new housing development near her bike trail that will wipe out several square miles of good bird habitat and she decides that she needs to do something to stop it. Give readers something, anything, to keep them reading. If you want the word to get out that you’re the next big mystery author (or whatever), then you had better. With agents and publishers becoming even more selective than they have been in the past, a boring first several chapters is more likely than ever before to doom a potential novel.
What the pros do
Most of the big-money authors, e.g. Fern Michaels, Robin Hobb, Harlan Coben, Steven King, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, that crowd, often begin their novels with something between the No. 1 and No. 2 beginning extremes, but they let readers know that excitement is coming, quickly, and not just ten or eleven or twelve chapters in.
New York Times bestselling author Ken Follett begins his novel A Dangerous Fortune with a first sentence that reads: On the day of the tragedy, the boys of Windfield School had been confined to their rooms.
Follett establishes, in his first sentence, that something serious has happened, and there are some dire consequences as a result. Follett engages readers immediately, not several chapters in, and makes them want to keep reading all the way through to the Big Finish.
Another NYT bestselling author, Robin Hobb, begins Renegade’s Magic with a first sentence by the main character that reads: I never spoke up for myself at my court-martial.
Hobb doesn’t wait several chapters to present readers with a serious issue.
NYT bestselling author Debbie Macomber begins the second paragraph of her novel Rose Harbor in Bloom with this statement of thought by the main character: I never planned on owning a bed and breakfast. But then I never expected to be a widow in my thirties, either.
These big-name authors know how to engage readers from the very first page and all the way through, not just at the Big Finish. They don’t wait until halfway or two-thirds of the way through their novels to grab readers’ emotions and interest. Why not take a cue from the success they’ve had?
Paul F. Murray is the author of four published novels with a fifth on the way. He reviews books for Readers’ Favorite Reviews. Paul is a member of Wealthy Affiliate, a platform that teaches affiliate marketing for individuals interested in establishing their own online business to create extra income. Check out my website, www.wealthyaffiliatelegit.com and my article “Wealthy Affiliate: Legitimate, non-scam moneymaker.”
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Paul F. Murray