How to Write a Bad First Page for Your Novel

Let’s analyze — and fix — a real example line by line

Niklas Göke
Aug 3 · 6 min read
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Photo by Nonsap Visuals on Unsplash

If the first page of your novel is bad, you won’t need the 300 that follow.

It’s a sad truth of writing in the 21st century: Catch our attention early, or we’ll move on right away. There are too many things to pay attention to. We’re overwhelmed already, and so we’ll only stick with the best.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That’s a great opening line, but you’ll still need great paragraphs to follow. The first page will make or break your novel. It is hard to overestimate how crucial it is.

It is, however, easy to screw it up. Let’s look at a random example. Laura is a photographer. She also writes poetry and short stories. Below is the first page of a story inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Read it and think about how it makes you feel:

Winding along the narrow dirt road the bare, dry branches of the mighty oak trees stretch out to each other directing the warm, gold shimmering sun rays to beam in stripes on the pathway. The heavy wooden wheels of the black coach twist and turn the dust and dry autumn leaves in spirals high up into the air. Reflecting, Emilia thought that this late autumn afternoon was more like a cold, dreary summer afternoon. The north of England had clearly not seen a single drop of rain in weeks and there was a heaviness in the air, like, Emilia thought, the early hours of the morning in London, when the city sleeps and the streets and alleyways are empty, and the only movement is the occasional stray cat and the hovering of isolated clouds of fog over the River Thames. A stifling sadness clouded her thoughts like a dark shadow that blurred out any pleasant memories. She always loathed leaving Mayfair and was feeling a little homesick.

Neighing unruly, the two black horses pulled the coached across small wooden bridge. Below, the river’s waters shone like liquid crystal in the dim sunlight of the evening. Emilia turned her gaze to the wayside where she caught sight of the knee-high stone sign post with the barely decipherable inscription “Ravensbrook”.

I don’t know about you, but I felt tired and confused after the first sentence. In fact, I had to re-read it. Realizing I was in for more of the same with each next line, it quickly felt like trudging through mud.

“Why is that?” I thought — and then I looked closer. Let’s go line by line. Please note I’m not saying any of this to rain on Laura’s parade, I just think there is a lot to learn here.

Winding along the narrow dirt road the bare, dry branches of the mighty oak trees stretch out to each other directing the warm, gold shimmering sun rays to beam in stripes on the pathway.

First, there is a comma missing after “road,” which throws off the rhythm of the sentence. Second, talking about a narrow, dirty road and bare, dry branches does not give me summer vibes. For a few seconds, Laura builds an image of a barren, depressing English countryside — and then she throws in warm, golden rays of sun, which immediately destroy said image. Third, too many adjectives. One line in, and we’re already in a sea of clutter.

The next line has the same clutter problem but also an issue with physics:

The heavy wooden wheels of the black coach twist and turn the dust and dry autumn leaves in spirals high up into the air.

Why do we need “twist” and “turn?” Why do we need dust and leaves? I don’t think we do. It’s also weird that a carriage going through leaves sends them “high up into the air.” Finally, the flying leaves seem to be the most important image here — yet it’s at the end of the line and described in a passive way.

Reflecting, Emilia thought that this late autumn afternoon was more like a cold, dreary summer afternoon.

Emilia reflects. Why use a gerund if you’re going to put the subject right after the verb — and follow it up with another verb that says the same thing? Weather-wise, we now come full circle as the main character also seems unable to identify which season we’re in. What’s the difference between a late autumn afternoon and a cold summer afternoon? Can you tell at first glance? I can’t tell at all. In this case, the specificity hurts the contrast. We can’t distinguish between the two elements, so it all sounds like one big mush.

The north of England had clearly not seen a single drop of rain in weeks and there was a heaviness in the air, like, Emilia thought, the early hours of the morning in London, when the city sleeps and the streets and alleyways are empty, and the only movement is the occasional stray cat and the hovering of isolated clouds of fog over the River Thames.

If the air is dry, it can’t be heavy. That too is basic physics. The comparison is flawed. The London analogy isn’t bad, but it’s too long, and if I imagine morning fog, I usually see one big veil of mist rather than “isolated clouds,” but this is subjective.

A stifling sadness clouded her thoughts like a dark shadow that blurred out any pleasant memories.

It feels like the images are switched here. A cloud blurs out the sun, a shadow hides something completely. But again, subjective.

She always loathed leaving Mayfair and was feeling a little homesick.

I think the tenses could be better here if they matched, but overall, this one’s alright. Then, we get into the last section.

Neighing unruly, the two black horses pulled the coached across small wooden bridge.

Neighing always sounds a bit unruly, and unruly is just an unruly adjective. Again: Gerunds at the beginning of a sentence, beware. “Coached” may be a typo, but if Laura means the travelers, that is one advanced — and clunky — English construction. Also: Given the setting, wouldn’t you imagine the bridge to be small and wooden anyway? “Bridge” would do the trick here, I think.

Below, the river’s waters shone like liquid crystal in the dim sunlight of the evening.

Time travel! Now, it’s evening. I thought it was an afternoon that felt like another afternoon? Timing is all over the place here. This is just more description on top of already irrelevant description. We don’t need it.

Emilia turned her gaze to the wayside where she caught sight of the knee-high stone sign post with the barely decipherable inscription “Ravensbrook”.

Ahh, the story begins. Emilia arrives in Ravensbrook. Unfortunately, she does so — once again — sans logic. A gaze is a long, lost look into the distance. It’s also a verb on its own, but it’s a bit at odds with suddenly catching sight of something — especially if what you’re catching is barely decipherable. It seems like Emilia would have had to either look around quickly or stare long and hard at that post, but the construction here just feels off.

Here’s an alternative suggestion for Laura’s first page. Instead of 219 words, we’ll make do with 137:

High above the road, the mighty oaks extend their dry branches. Like two hands reaching out for one another, they almost touch as they break the light falling onto the narrow, winding path below. The coach wheels turn in, and dry leaves spiral into the air. Emilia thought this warm fall afternoon felt more like a cold summer morning. The heaviness in the air resembled an early-morning London, when the city still sleeps and the only movements are the occasional stray cat on a pier and the fog hovering over the River Thames. Emilia felt sad. A shadow hung over her thoughts like a cloud that blurs out any happy memory. She hated leaving Mayfair and felt homesick. With a loud neigh, the horses pulled the coach across the bridge. Emilia’s eye caught the signpost: “Ravensbrook.”

To paraphrase the words of Laura’s big inspiration Oscar Wilde, at 19 years old, she is “still young enough to know everything.”

She’s having too much fun to see her fiction is bad, and she has plenty of time to realize it later — just as I did long after I wrote my foolish, first book, which should have stayed a blog post.

It takes many a bad sentence to eventually write a good one. The best way to reduce the number of those sentences is to look at them. What works? What doesn’t? What would you feel if this was the first line of someone’s novel?

One day, it’ll be yours. Take all the time you need, but don’t leave us hanging. Grab us completely and we’ll follow you — no matter how many pages follow.

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Niklas Göke

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Better Marketing

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Niklas Göke

Written by

I write, you follow. Your life will never feel hollow. I promise. Hit the button. Join 75,000 others. ⤵

Better Marketing

Marketing advice & case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and efficiently.

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