One evening this past week while preparing for bed. I was brushing my teeth, letting my mind wander. Suddenly, Evan Quinn was talking in my mind with another musician as they ran through the streets of Buenos Aires after Evan’s last concert there. This conversation has been nagging at me for years. The first time I wrote it, I just wanted to get something down on paper so I could work with it. Over time, I’d revised and rewrote it several times, never getting to the point where it felt right in my bones. This conversation opens Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in my Perceval series. It starts on the first page.
The first page of any book, fiction or nonfiction, is crucial in the set up for the rest of the story. I call it the “Sing, goddess” page, after the first stanza of Homer’s The Iliad. In that first stanza, Homer encapsulates the entire story of his epic in general terms, giving the promise of fleshing out the details in the subsequent stanzas. Its conciseness is brilliant. It pulls in the reader (or listener, back in Homer’s day) with drama, war, gods, and the tragedy of the favored, beloved Achilles.
Nowadays, writers must pull in their readers with the first page, but not necessarily with an encapsulation of the entire story. What are the elements of a riveting first page?
Action: Begin in media res, or in the middle of action. Ironically, this does not have to be physical action. It can be internal action, i.e. the action of the mind at work. Especially if the mind is acting in an interesting or unusual way. Physical action can be anything really as long as something is happening.
Conflict: This can be the introduction of the main thematic conflict, or actual physical conflict, or even intellectual conflict embodied in dialogue. For Perceval’s Shadow, at least two conflicts exist on the first page. One is a broader conflict (war) that affects Evan directly, and the other is a much more personal conflict.
Mystery: Who are the characters? Why are they in that location? What will happen next? There can also be foreshadowing that will create a sense of mystery surrounding the characters, their motivations, and their behavior. In every good story there is always a strong element of mystery that keeps the reader reading. What’s going to happen next?
What is a good example of these three elements coming together in a successful first page? I think page one of Andy Weir’s The Martian. It begins with “LOG ENTRY: SOL 6.” What? What does that mean?
Then the first sentence: “I’m pretty much fucked.” This made me smile, in spite of the dire nature of the statement. It was over the top. Something has happened, but what? Mystery.
Second sentence: “That’s my considered opinion.” We’re getting a sense of character with this sentence, a kind of defiance in the face of the adversity implied in the first sentence.
Third sentence: “Fucked.” OK, what is so terrible to result in such a fatalistic reaction? Mystery.
Fourth sentence: “Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.” Ah, lots of questions come out of this statement. Why should it be the greatest month of his life? What was he doing? What happened that it became a nightmare? What is that nightmare? Clearly, some sort of conflict occurred but what was it?
Fifth sentence: “I don’t even know who’ll read this.” Now we know he’s alone, although we’re not certain of this character’s sex yet. So far, these sentences have raised more questions than they’ve answered, and the action could go in just about any direction. This is an example of mental action or thinking in action.
Two sentences later, Weir gives us some answers with conflict, action, and some more mystery. We find out that the character is Mark Watney and he’s on Mars. He was a member of a crew who thought he’d died (why?). And the conflict? Well, obviously it’s going to be Mark Watney vs. Mars. And that is essentially the first page of The Martian.
Next time you’re shopping for books, be sure to read the first pages of the books you’re looking at. Where’s the action? The conflict? The mystery?