Let’s face it: first pages are hard. First chapters are hard. First sentences are hard. Why? Because they are supposed to act like bait. They’re what’re going to hook your reader and drag them into the rest of the story. As a writer, your job description is pretty much a fisher of readers. And nobody ever said fishing was easy.
In fact, fishing is really, really hard. I’m not trying to sound discouraging; it’s just the truth. Fishing takes patience, practice, and a whole lot of dedication. Many times, readers (including myself) never make it past the first page, let alone the first chapter of a novel. I’m going to turn off my novelist self for a few minutes and talk to you guys as a reader.
Sometimes novelists wonder what makes us put down their books before we’ve given them a chance. But I’m going to tell you a secret: readers aren’t nice people. We’re not going to read a book we aren’t totally fascinated by just because we want to give the author a chance. It doesn’t work that way. That makes the author’s job even harder, because now they have to learn to hook people who don’t want to be hooked.
Readers are busy people. We have things to do, places to go, and deadlines to meet. Even though we may want to read a good book, it’s still competing with a billion other things that want our time. And competition implies that it has to win.
What makes readers put down your book after one chapter (or less)? We get bored. It’s a plain, simple, sad fact. And since I’m being a reader today, I’m going to share with you seventeen things that bore me (and other readers I’ve spoken with) on the first page:
#1: Flat Characters
Perhaps the most boring of all are characters who have no sense of life about them. No drive, no emotion, no goals, no voice. Characters who more closely resemble a piece of cardboard than a human being. As I’ve said before, brilliant, unique characters are the #1 thing that keeps me reading. If they aren’t real, chances are that I’ll be bored and put the book down. So be sure to give the promise of fascinating characters on page one.
#2: Redundant Prose
Too many sentences like, “He’d given her an advance warning, but she missed the call” or, “We planned to collaborate together on the project” really injure a writer’s prose. Why? Because, think about it: warnings are always in advance, or they wouldn’t be warnings. And “collaborate” and “together” are practically the same thing. These subtle redundancies creep into a reader’s mind like a dull throb, slowly shutting them down to the story.
#3: Laundry Lists
Listing off details in succession with a bunch of adjectives tacked on for good measure never helped anybody; much less a reader.
#4: Overusing Similes
I like similes. They’re fun when I’m writing, but I’ve got to be careful not to use too many of them, because when I’m reading, I remember how distracting they can be. A lot of time writers (including me) try and get extra points for creativity here, at the risk of boring the reader. “Her eyes sparkled like sunlight on the river,” is nice, but using “like” descriptions every other sentence gets to be too much.
#5: Long Paragraphs and Little Whitespace
This is where readers really get brutal. When I open a book and see nothing but text, text, text, text on the first page, lumped together as one or two mega paragraphs, my interest in even beginning to read goes way down. Readers don’t only demand interesting things, but we like them to be easy to read. (I know, it’s not fair.) Not to mention that more whitespace gives the illusion of reading faster, which people tend to like.
#6: Lacking Description
If I’ve managed to get through the first page or so and am still picturing the characters as faceless ghosts floating through a void, that’s not a good sign. Be sure, when writing, to use enough details early on so as not to leave your reader in the dark. It’s frustrating.
#7: Too Much Description
Just as with too little description, too much can be tiresome. In contrast to the void, if all I’ve gotten from the first page is what the main character’s mother’s sister’s front parlor looks like, I’m probably not going to be terribly excited to keep reading. This is a trap that is especially easy for writers of science fiction and fantasy, or other genres with exotic worlds to fall into. World description is important, but it is much more interesting when distributed throughout the story as opposed to a single deluge on the first few pages.
#8: Protagonist Wakes Up From Nightmare Cliché
While this one can sometimes work and keep my interest, generally I find it to be just that: a cliché, written the same (or similar) way each time. This is doesn’t necessarily call for elimination, but rather, a fresh, artful perspective.
Again, as with dreams, flashbacks occasionally work to keep my interest, but not often. The reason for this is that getting caught up in the events of the story only to find out that they are a thing of the past is, to be frank, kind of a letdown. You mean that epic chase scene isn’t really happening? What’s worse is when the exciting flashback ends, leaving your character getting ready for work in the morning. It’s like riding a rollercoaster that starts off with a big drop, only to level out for the rest of the ride.
#10: “It all started when…”
This is an opening that just seems overdone, and so it doesn’t really catch my attention.
#11: Immediate, Full Character Descriptions
Describing everything about a character on the first page tends to be very dull. I know because I used to do it all the time with phrases like, “Twelve-year-old Gwen Anderson had blonde hair, green eyes, and a small, snub nose…” and then I would go on to describe her style choices, etc. But I’ll spare you that. A little bit of description is good (it might be nice to know a hair or eye color), but going overboard, while sometimes fun for the author, is drudgery for a reader. Instead, spread your character descriptions out a little bit. Continue to feed us important details throughout the first chapter instead of lumping it all in one place.
#12: Weather Reports
“It was a rainy day in mid-April when Jack Perry trudged down the road to the market.” I can’t tell you how many novels I’ve read that open with this, or something similar. Sometimes the weather reports go on for a paragraph. While not inherently bad, it’s not the most exciting start.
#13: Action Without Enough Info
This is a really irksome one. Why? Because, as a reader, if I’m thrust into an action scene, I generally like to know what’s going on, and have some form of a connection to the protagonist. When a story starts out with the shot of a gun and somebody dies, it might sound bad, but your readers probably won’t care. They don’t know anything about that person. I love getting into action scenes. They’re some of my favorite things to read. But when I can’t tell what’s going on, why, or whom to care for, I get tired of reading. The best action scenes come after a solid buildup. They are payoffs.
#14: Pages Without Dialogue
I’m not saying you have to have snappy dialogue on page one, but if you go for, say, ten, or even five without anybody saying anything, I’m probably going to get bored.
#15: The Alarm Clock Opening
This is one of those clichés that can be made interesting, but generally isn’t. Alarm goes off, character leaps out of bed (or shuts it off and lays there, deep in thought), nothing terribly exciting happens. He eats breakfast and thinks about exciting stuff.
#16: “It was a normal day…”
“…and I was on my way to school.” Or something. Yes, well. “Normal day” openings tend to make readers yawn. We don’t want a normal day; we can have those ourselves. Give us something abnormal! That’s why we’re reading.
#17: Moving/The New School
Unless your character has some sort of unique ability and is being transferred to an unexpectedly cool or bizarre school, it’s just more of the same. “The new kid” protagonist has become a distinct cliché.
Of course, all of these things are just my opinion (though I did take a poll among other readers as well). These are things I dislike and like as a reader. Maybe you know how to make an alarm clock scene gripping. If so, don’t let this post keep you from writing that. It’s just some food for thought when trying to create truly riveting first pages.
What are some of your favorite and least favorite openings? Leave a comment and share!
Emily Tjaden is a novelist, editor, and blogger. At nineteen, she is the oldest of five, and a Lord of the Rings fan who likes hobbits, dragons, and coffee. Aside from writing weird, speculative fiction, her passions include music, photography, and helping others see the potential they have to make a difference. She can be found blogging about various creative imaginings at www.dreaminghobbit.com.