A first chapter is a promise between a book and the reader. — Eric Smith, agent, P.S. Literary
When you’re sending your work out to agents and editors, either as a novel or short story, it can feel like a kind of mercurial process. Sometimes it even feels like you’re sending your work into a void. Will they respond? Will they like it? Will they hate it? You’ve put a lot of work into the thing you’re sending out. How can you know how it will be received?
That’s the writer’s perspective. But from the perspective of an agent or editor, the major factor is time. People involved in publishing are always overtaxed, probably underpaid, and generally busy people. One of the reasons I always encourage writers to spend some time volunteering for a magazine or journal as a slush reader is that you get to see what it’s like fielding hundreds of submissions at once. It’s a lot of work. In the latest Interstellar Flight Press call for novellas, we received close to 200 submissions (180 to be exact.) That’s a lot of submissions to read through! I’ve heard of agents who get 100+ queries a day.
Agents and editors are looking for submissions that quickly set themselves apart. The stand-out submissions are fairly easy to locate. While all of slushing is somewhat subjective (as far as taste goes, we all have different loves and hates), I’ve noticed that there are a couple of things that are distinguishable between the stories I loved from a slush pile and the ones I passed over quickly.
So how do you stand out from the crowd as a writer?
The key is in what is commonly called the “First Page Promise.” It’s the idea that you need to tell the reader what to expect from your book on the first page. Yes, the first page, not the second or third or fifteenth.
There are four elements that have to be on the first page, in my humble opinion, in order for the reader to know what kind of adventure they’re about to embark on:
Whose story is this? Readers want to know the main character right away. Preferably by name. But how much can you really inject about a character on the first page alone? Well, the answer is a lot. Here’s some examples:
Chapter One: A Universal Bath Plug
Beginning the narrative of Clod Iremonger, Forlichingham Park, London
How It Started
It all really began, all the terrible business that followed, on the day my Aunt Rosamud’s door handle went missing. It was my aunt’s particular door handle, a brass one. It did not help that she had been all over the mansion the day before with it, looking for things to complain about as was her habit. She had stalked through every floor, she had been up and down staircases, opening doors at every opportunity, finding fault. And during all her thorough investigations, she insisted that her door handle was about her, only now it was not. Someone, she screamed, had taken it.
(from Heap House by Edward Carey)
In this example, we are literally told on the first page who the main character of the book is, Clod Iremonger. Carey uses a subtitle under the chapter header to establish the name of the character. We also learn that Clod is younger (you can get that vibe from his voice) and that he lives in London. This very short passage on the first page tells us a lot about Clod and his worries.
Once in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons. Delain was a very old kingdom and it had had hundreds of Kings, perhaps even thousands; when time goes on long enough, not even historians can remember everything. Roland the Good was neither the best nor the worst King to ever rule the land. He tried very hard not to do anyone great evil and mostly succeeded. He also tried very hard to do great works, but unfortunately, he didn’t suceed so well at that. The result was a very mediocre King; he doubted if he would be remembered long after he was dead. And his death might come at any time now, because he had grown old, and his heart was failing. He had perhaps one year left, perhaps three. Everyone who knew him, and everyone who observed his gray face and shaking hands when he held court, agreed that in five years at the very most a new King would be crowned in the great plaza at the foot of the Needle . . . and it would only be five years with God’s grace. So everyone in the Kingdom, from the richest baron and the most foppishly dressed courtier to the poorest serf and his ragged wife, thought and talked about the King in waiting, Roland’s elder son, Peter.
And one man thought and planned and brooded on something else: how to make sure that Roland’s younger son, Thomas, should be crowned King instead. This man was Flagg, the King’s magician.
(from The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King)
This example introduces us to several main characters at once. The story of The Eyes of the Dragon ultimately revolves around Thomas, the reluctant King, but his father Roland, his brother Peter, and Flagg the magician are all also major players in the story. This example also does a great job of telling us that we have a narrator (the third person ‘historian’ voice) and setting up the fairy-tale-like voice of the story. In both Heap House and The Eyes of the Dragon, speculative elements appear on the first page, which leads us to . . .
You may be thinking, “wait, isn’t this what my cover letter is for?” Even though you need to establish in a query letter to an agent what genre your writing in, your first page is what showcases the specific subgenre of the story. Is this going to be a “magical girls rebelling against nazis” story, or maybe a “sword and sorcery meets queer romance” story? The first page is where you promise the reader they’re going to enjoy your book, because they are into that subgenre.
One way to establish genre is by word choice and using jargon, like in this example:
My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years. Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do. There are some really good carers who’ve been told to stop after just two or three years. And I can think of one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space. So I’m not trying to boast. But then I do nkow for a fact they’ve been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too. My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them ahve been classified as “agitated,” even before fourth donation.
(from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro)
Immediately we know that there are “carers” and “donors” in this world. We don’t yet understand what these terms mean exactly, but we know we’re not dealing with your everyday story set in today’s world.
This is perhaps the hardest to achieve of the four fundamentals of the first page promise. It’s the one that writers constantly struggle with hitting head-on.
Ali Herring has a fantastic diagram on her website describing stakes and plot arc. The stakes are essentially why the story matters to your character at this very moment. They demonstrate why the story opens where it does (often in medias res). Another way of looking at stakes is by plot: There are larger, over-arching plots that relate to the bigger world, there are external stakes (the actions and things happening to the character), and then there are interior personal stakes(the internal struggles) and exterior personal stakes (the character’s relationship with others).
Sometimes a story starts where it does because it’s the beginning of a landslide, the place where it all began. But sometimes the story follows a character looking back on their life. Either way, the reader needs to know a hint at the stakes of the situation.
My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died. He had such a strong heart, yet he died. Was it the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop? It’s true that nothing could take him from his work, his art. He loved to make the metal bend, to obey him. But his work only seemed to strengthen him; he was so happy in his shop. So what was it that killed him? To this day I can’t be sure. I hope it had nothing to do with me or what I did back then.
(From Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor)
Nnedi Okorafor’s story is set in post-apocalyptic Africa, and the heart of the tale is the main character’s struggle to achieve her destiny. The plot begins right here, on the first page.
I will also say that stakes can change based on the type of story you’re telling. Short stories have more wiggle room than novels. Sometimes stakes are small and soft, sometimes they come blazing onto the page in gunfights and explosions. It just depends on the story.
4. One Burning Question
The last thing your first page needs is a question — a mystery. This is the thing that ensures your reader wants to keep reading.
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.
There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.
(From The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)
Writers struggle with this because they want to bring up lots of questions at first, to keep the readers intrigued. But really, you only need one burning question to keep a reader engaged. In the above passage, the one question the reader wants to know is why are women being kept in this gym? And the answer is pretty explosive.
If you include these four fundamentals in your first page, you’ll be making a promise to your reader. The promise says “this is the kind of book you’re getting into.” There can be surprises along the way, but you have to live up to the greatness of that first page.
And that’s where all the fun comes in as a writer.
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.