Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
March 15, 2024

The Pain of First Pages

Frustrated writer at laptop

Why is it so $#%*! hard to write the opening of a novel?

Maybe you stare at the blank page wondering where to begin, how to best introduce your characters, or what will make the best hook to keep readers turning pages.

Or maybe you’re not concerned with any of that in the first draft. Maybe, like me, you revel in the fresh start, putting down words at first that seem to flow like water. But by draft number two, or sixteen, you’re dreading the deep changes you need to make to that opening to bring the whole story into focus.

Whatever your process, the first pages of a book tend to receive the most attention from an author. Why? There are several very good reasons.

So. Much. Info.

What should be included in the first few pages of a novel rivals Santa’s Nice-or-Naughty List in length and breadth. Here’s a list of what you’re expected to introduce right away:

  • Main character(s)
  • His/her age, vocation, and other important details
  • Something that makes the reader care about or relate to the MC
  • His/her everyday world
  • His/her primary desire / external goal
  • His/her internal wound / myths believed
  • Theme
  • Setting (where, when, etc.)
  • Genre and subgenre
  • Mood and tone
  • Conflict
  • Stakes
  • Author’s unique voice
  • End-of-first-scene or chapter hook

And not only do you need to include these things but make it appear seamless, like "of course, this is how stories are told." No, no, dear reader, that isn’t blood, sweat, and tears you see, just another delightful day in the life of an author. Yeah, right.

It’s a Catch-22.

You need to know your characters and story well enough to nail those first few pages, but you don’t know them well enough yet because you haven’t written the story. That is, unless you’re a plotter extraordinaire and have already spent many hours with your characters before writing the first line.

But for many writers, those first few pages set the tone for the rest of what they write, and they need to pen a great opening to push forward. The beginning is where you plunge yourself into your characters, what they want, what they need, and how to get them there.

So, the Catch-22 is that you need to know your characters better to write the first pages well, but you need to write the first pages well to get to know your characters better.

By the way, has anyone actually read the Catch-22 novel by Joseph Heller, or do we simply reference the phrase like I just did? Oh well, I digress.

Where to Begin…

You might have intriguing characters, gorgeous prose, and a beautiful hook that pulls readers in, but you may have started in the wrong place. Many writers have received feedback that comes down to: “Nice writing, but throw out the first few pages and start on chapter two.” Ouch.

It’s hard to know when your story should begin. Some stories dump the reader right in the action, and others require a slower build-up. And while genre conventions can help you know which way to go, they don’t illuminate the path perfectly. You have to find the sweet spot for your particular story.

You might have to poke around for a while before you come upon that sweet spot.

Are You a Perfectionist?

Too many writers don’t move forward from those first few pages until they’re shinier than a buffed diamond. They write and rewrite, edit and edit, polish and polish until they can’t see the whole anymore.

Their words are trees, and the sense of a whole forest has been lost. Lost in the woods, they no longer know if what they wrote is any good. It’s analysis paralysis at its best. Worst? Yeah, worst.

Today’s Readers Are Impatient

Once upon a time, I gave any and every book I started a full 50 pages to hook me. Now, an author gets 10–20 pages to convince me to keep reading. Many readers allow for far less than that. They may download a sample or simply read the first page or two before deciding whether to buy.

That puts a lot of pressure on the author to give those first pages magnetic appeal. Or perhaps hypnotic: you must keep reading you must keep reading you must keep reading. We feel the gravity of that opening, which can create the kind of stress that makes it more difficult to write. Or to know if what we’re writing works for others.

Summary: Writing first pages can be a pain in the patootie.

How Do You Get It Right?

First of all, just write. It’s a-okay for your first draft to include stuff that you’ll need to ditch later. You may discover that the best opening for your novel occurs halfway through your first draft of chapter one. And that’s okay. Deleting words (and paragraphs) can be just as important as adding them.

Second, introduce your main character in relationship to others. With rare exceptions, your primary character shouldn’t start with a lot of time alone, internal dialogue, a dream, etc. We need to know who this person is in the context of their relationships. That’s also where we’ll likely figure out what their goals and desires are—whether it’s a longing to be with someone, avoid someone, or even destroy someone. Take us away from others, and our stories become far less intriguing (Castaway, excepted).

Third, hit the highlights. Remember that list above? Check back with it after you’ve drafted your initial scene and see if you covered the elements a reader would be looking for. If you didn’t, no worries—layer them in as you edit.

Fourth, grab a critique partner or group. With first chapters especially, we writers can lose perspective. It helps to have another writer, beta reader, or full group let you know if they were hooked or needed more to feel invested in your characters.

Fifth, let it go. It’s okay to let that first scene or chapter rest up as it is and to plow forward with the rest of the book. Writing the rest of the story may give you the clarity needed to return to the first scene/chapter with the fresh eyes and make sure it reflects the theme and goals of your whole novel.

Openings Can Be Magical

Fortunate. That’s how I feel about the many wonderful novel openings I’ve read through the years. From Daphne Du Maurier’s “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” to Christina Delay’s “Every good story starts with a lie,” I’ve been yanked into story after story by beautiful first lines and chapters that make me want to turn page after page.

But none of that happened with draft number one. Indeed, what looks like magic requires numerous hours of trial and error, practice, and skill. It can come with some pain, but in the Nike slogan way of “no pain, no gain.”

Work for it, and you’ll be happy with the results.

Do your own first lines just show up in the first draft, or do they arrive in the later drafts? What first lines have stayed with you years later? Do you have advice about openings to add here? Please share it down in the comments!

And for another great opportunity to perfect your first pages, check out the next Cruising Writers retreat! We sail the Caribbean February 22-March 1, 2025, with special guests Mark Leslie and Erin Wright and a First Pages workshop in which you get professional feedback for your writing. Check out the amazing benefits and full itinerary HERE.

* * * * * *

About Julie

Julie Glover is an award-winning author of young adult and mystery fiction. Her debut Sharing Hunter placed in several contests, including the much-touted RWA® Golden Heart® YA. Her follow-up, Daring Charlotte, was released last year, and Pairing Anton is coming soon! She has also co-authored five supernatural suspense novels and two short stories in the Muse Island series under her pen name Jules Lynn.

Julie has taught conference workshops and online courses, served as a host of the Writers in the Storm blog, and is a sometimes-host for Cruising Writers, an incomparable writers’ retreat at sea.

Learn more about Julie and her books at her website: julieglover.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

26 comments on “The Pain of First Pages”

  1. Daphne Du Maurier’s first line always bugged me - why didn't she write: Last night I dreamt I retuned to Manderley. Smoother, right? Oh well, I digress, too.

    First pages are either easy for me, or brutal. Nothing in-between.

    The beginning of what became The Last True Cowboy came to me complete - and I had no idea of what the rest of the book was about. The Sweet Spot first scene I saw clearly, but it took going back for months while I wrote the rest of the book to get that first page perfect (to me, anyway.)

    My current WIP? Ask me in a couple months...

    LOVE your checklist!

    1. If only all our openings came to us complete! But I'm glad it happened for you like that, Laura! I only have one time that has happened for me, but it's a weird opening—a prologue in a way—so I'm not even sure it counts.

  2. I started the beginning of my first novel far too early. In the end, I cut about 4 complete chapters.

    I started the beginning of my first book far too early. In the end I cut about 4 chapters!
    I hope I've learned something in the next 12 novels and novellas.

    1. I'm sure you have! And that's so common—writing for a while and then realizing the beginning could start later and be better. It probably wasn't wasted time, though, since it got you going and interested in your characters. Congrats on the all the books, V.M.!

  3. Hi Julie,

    Your checklist is awesome! I need to have a better feel for the stakes.

    It is rare for me to have good first lines in early drafts. That first chapter, especially the first pages, seem to need the most editing.

    A favorite first line for me is from Jim Butcher's Ghost Story. " Life is hard Dying's easy."

    1. Yeah, I think stakes aren't always easy to get early on. But somehow, it should communicated that this thing the character wants or needs really matters! Sadly, I put down a book recently that just didn't do that for me. I gave it a few chapters, but the character's journey just didn't seem to matter that much, so why invest all that time?

      But hey, the stakes don't have to be in the first chapter on draft one. I often go back to checklists to see what I need to revise! 🙂

  4. Love, love that checklist, Julie. Something to strive for. I've found that sometimes my first pages, especially the first lines, benefit from simply moving things around. Move your best line - maybe from paragragh 3 or 8 or 12 - to the very beginning. Lots of good things to think about in your tips!

  5. Love this post! As a new fiction writer, I was always having to chop off the first 2 or 3 chapters--they were filled with backstory. Now, I do all that backstory work as worksheets. Essentially, I became more of a plotter than pantser. I'm answering all of your checklist through my plotting before I write one word of the story. Great list!

    You're way more generous than I am in sticking with a story before stopping. If I'm not hooked after just a couple pages, I'll flip to the middle, read a few paragraphs, then flip to the back to see how it ends. So little time, so many books!

  6. You know I always love your posts, Julie, but I can see that your openings checklist has won the day here. We are all loving it!

    I agree with Diana - I usually give someone up to 10 pages. If they haven't excited me with the character by then, I put it down and move onto something else.

    1. I often give 3-5 chapters, depending on chapter length. But I used to give 50 pages! I can't imagine that now. The older get, the less time you get to hook me.

      Thanks, Jenny!

  7. One of my novels - Dominion of Darkness - I rewrote the opening more than 50 times. Then I took it to Margie Lawson's immersion, and wound up rewriting it again. I resisted and resisted, but she was right.

    Fortunately, I was able to tie into immersion buddies when I wrote the opening to the second book. Recently I started questioning it, but as I reviewed your list, it reminded me that yes, this is where the book starts. At least I hope it is!

  8. Feeling kind of weird here. My first pages and even the first few chapters always come right out. Then there's the rest of the book.

    Great post, Julie. Thank you!

  9. I use a worksheet I created to fill in all the important details on location, time of day, which characters are in the scene, and what the main character wants going into the scene. Once I have the entire story set up, I worry about crafting the prose later. It's much less stressful, and it gives you space to make changes along the way. Great article!

    1. How great that you found a process that works for you! (I'm one of those who loses some interest in the writing if I plan too much ahead of time. ~shrug~) Thanks for the tip, Rachel.

  10. As a writer I frantically try and cram in all and every first page list I have run across. And I always find something better later.
    As a reader I must be old school, I give the opening a lot of leeway and let the world and characters grow on my. Theme will make me smile after I finish, Genre is in the title ( or should be) stakes come and go, voice and setting and such details are flowers meant to grow.
    And, old school, I never not finish a book. Seems rude not to give a persons work a try. Though I might skim the dull parts.

  11. Great job, Julie. Can't wait to see you in Granbury again. I bet I've re-written my opening to Feeding Buzzards twenty times. I think I'm happy with it now. At least until I read it again. 0:)

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved