Authors are often advised that the first sentence of a novel is the most important, but it’s really the first page that will grab the reader, push them away, or leave them non-affected. In a recent First Draft Friday chat, I chatted all about first pages with author and writing coach Joan Dempsey, who shared her tips for writing a gripping first page.
In our live chat, we took questions from the audience and discussed where to begin your novel, some do’s and don’ts of a first page, and how you can immediately engage your audience with your story.
- The proper impact of an opening sentence
- How strong adjectives can bring a scene to life
- The biggest mistakes authors make with their opening scene
- Backstory and exposition – where it belongs
- Picking a strong setting for a novel and scene
- Important elements to consider for your first page
- And so much more!
Click below to watch our discussion or continue reading for the transcript.
Winner of the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, and named by Poets & Writers magazine as one of “5 more over 50” writers to watch, Joan Dempsey is the author of the novel This Is How It Begins, which won the bronze 2018 Independent Publisher Book Award for literary fiction. The novel is also a 2018 Lambda Literary Award finalist (gay fiction), 2017 Foreword Indies Book of the Year Award Finalist (historical fiction) and 2018 Sarton Women’s Book Award finalist (contemporary fiction). Joan received her MFA degree and teaching certificate in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles.
She was the recipient of a significant research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation for her work on This Is How It Begins, a grant that took her to Warsaw for a month, and to Washington, D.C. for 10 days to study in the archives at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Her writing has been published in The Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Obsidian: Literature of the African Diaspora and Plenitude Magazine, and has aired on National Public Radio.
She lives in New Gloucester, Maine, with her partner and their family of animals.
If you enjoy the video, please explore our other First Draft Friday chats.
Joan Dempsey’s website for authors: https://gutsygreatnovelist.com/
Explore Marlowe (our A.I. manuscript analysis tool): authors.ai/marlowe
Alessandra: Hi everyone. We are live. This is First Draft Friday. I am your host Alessandra Torre with Authors AI. And today, I am joined by Joan Dempsey, who’s going to be talking all about how to write a gripping first page of your novel. I am so excited about this topic. I know I say that with every topic, but this is such a great topic that’s constantly valid. I can see the rooms filling up. Joan, do you want to introduce yourself?
Joan: Yeah. Sure. Hi and thank you so much for having me and hey everybody. Also shout out to people I know who are here from the Gutsy Great Writers Novel writer studio. That’s a great novelist writer studio which I host, an online community, so hi friends. I know you guys are here. Yeah, basically, I’m a novelist first and a teacher second, and I run an online community. I host a writing retreat each year here in Maine. I teach online classes, one of which is called Writing Gripping First Page, oddly enough. And yeah, that’s pretty much what I do.
Alessandra: Fantastic. And what type of fiction do you write in your, you know, inside of your writing life?
Joan: I write literary fiction. I think of it as political page turning literary fiction, so you can see my novel on the shelf behind me, this is how it begins. And that one, I mean, basically I love to write about social issues with a sort of even handed balance between various sides of different issues.
Alessandra: Yeah. I’m sure you’re super busy then with everything, you know, you’ve got lots of thoughts. OK, so let’s jump right in. When I’m an author and I’m looking at my first page are these tips that are, as they’re writing their first page or editing a preexisting, you know, first chapter or both?
Joan: It really can be both. I mean, most of the people who take the class with me and most of the people I work with already have an existing first page and we end up working on what exists. But if you haven’t written the first page, the stuff that I teach and the tips I want to share with you today are also super helpful. And I mean, I’m sure you guys know as readers and Alessandra, you and the other writers who are on the program here, that first page is so critical, right? Because you have to grab your reader. Whoever that reader is, could be an agent, could be a publisher, could be just a regular reader, but you really need to grab them very quickly in order to draw them in. And there are common elements that make that work, and there are things that you really should avoid.
And I just want to share that in the time that I’ve been working with writers, which is probably close to 20 years now, I have literally read four to 500 manuscripts as an editor. And I can tell within the first sentence, typically, if I’m in the hands of a capable writer, and I can tell right away in the first page, what things that writer needs to tweak in order to make it the best page it could possibly be. So, you know, agents, when they read, that’s what they look at. If you’re sending your query to an agent, they’re going to look at that and they’re going to make a snap decision just like that. So the stronger your first page is, the better you can represent yourself and your work.
Alessandra: I love everything you just said, and I can’t wait to hear these tips that you’re going to share over the next half hour. I am a huge snob in that I will put aside a book quick, super quick. And like you said, within the first couple of paragraphs, I normally like, this is a field, this is a book that appeals to me. My books takes me hours because I’m reading those first few pages and then, you know, deciding what to do. OK, let’s jump right in. What are some of your tips?
Joan: Yeah, well, I wanted to start by saying, so in this class I teach, there are a whole bunch of things that we go through and I’m going to tell you those quickly, because we only have 30 minutes. So I would ask if you’re here with us or even if you’re listening to the replay; take a piece of paper, jot these things down. And I can’t get into them in depth, but I will sort of go over a couple of the most major ones. I’ll also say that in this class, we look very, very carefully at the opening line. And then we looked really carefully at the entire first page. And the opening line, I love opening lines. I mean, maybe like you Alessandra, you know, when I go to bookstore, I do the same thing.
I just open it up if I’m captivated and you know, right away, I’m good. And that opening line has to be something that I just love, otherwise I’m probably not going to keep going. So we look at first lines and critique those first lines and we look at the first pages. And I wanted to share, let’s see where I have it here. There was a great article about Stephen King in the Atlantic. And this was years ago, I forgot, 2013, I guess it was. And this quote by Stephen King is perfect. He says, an opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say, listen, come in here, you want to know about this. And I think that’s it that, you know, that’s what captures that first line; the first line is so, so critical.
Alessandra: Just real quick before you jump in, we did have a comment and this is a great question for those watching. It someone from Facebook, we can’t see their name, but it says, “I assume the first page is also priority for non-fiction?” So if we do have some non-fictioners watching, do you want to speak on that before you..?
Joan: Yeah, absolutely. And thank you, I’m glad you put that out there because I’ve worked with lots of non-fiction, narrative non-fiction memoir, all of that, and it’s just as critical for those books. I speak typically more about fiction because somewhere along the line, I changed my focus from fiction and non-fiction to just looking at novels. So I’ll be talking a lot about novels, but the principles absolutely apply. And I’ve had especially memoirs, a lot of memoirers will join the class because, you know, a lot of, as I’m sure the person who commented there knows, you know, a lot of narrative nonfiction reads like novels, so all of the same principles apply.
Joan: Yeah. So what I’d love to do is – let me start with the first sentence, and then I will quickly go through the different elements to consider to include on your opening page and then the elements to avoid, if you can, on your first page, and we can take questions from there. So let’s see. I just want to share this. This is from, and I’m not sure Alessandra if I sent this to you guys in advance, it’s 35 opening sentences from novels. I’m not sure if that ended up on the website or not, but in any case, that’s what I’m looking at. And this is taken from the Writing Gripping First Page class. So here’s the opening line of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, which I personally loved. She says on a sticky August evening, two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a central square apartment, combining rice Krispies and planters peanuts, and chopped red onion in a bowl.
Now, part of the reason I love that sentences, it is so packed with stuff and it illustrates some of the principles that I think are really important. I’d love to see if it’s possible, I’m just looking at the comments here. If you guys would write in the comments and Alessandra, you’re welcome to jump in. What you hear in that sentence that you feel is important. I’ll read it again quickly. On a sticky August evening, two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a central square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts, and chopped red onion in a bowl. What are you learning from that sentence? What is it about that opening sentence that draws you in? Any ideas of around that? Any thoughts?
Alessandra: Well, one thing I love is the picture that’s painted. So it’s like I can immediately envision this woman, you know with her big belly, but the level of detail, it’s very… I talk a lot with authors about, you don’t need a ton of detail, but if you can pinpoint some specific details and she did a fantastic, or he did a fantastic job of painting a picture with that. And so, you can see the comments. Mel said her cravings coming up on her due date. I’ve never been pregnant, but suddenly now I understand because I was like, that’s an odd combination of food, but now I understand it’s because she’s pregnant.
Joan: Yeah. Nina also says, Nina Mars says sets place, time and character. And that’s one of the things I love about this too. You know, it’s August, you know it’s hot, you know she’s in central square. If you know anything about this author, you’ll know it’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which isn’t evident from this. She’s eating rice Krispies and planters peanuts. So you can probably tell from that she’s in the state somewhere, but she does have this weird combination, right, and Janet saying something’s about to happen in a couple of weeks. That’s right. So you know that she’s both craving something that we might think is unusual and you then read on and learn sort of what that is. And VJ Bauer or Vince, I know you Vince, hi, glad you’re here. Sticky, stuck to me right away. That’s right.
Alessandra: Sticky was a great adjective.
Joan: Absolutely. Absolutely. So there’s so much that can get packed into just the first line and it’s amazing once you start teasing those first lines apart, how much can be packed into even just a small line. Like here’s another one. This is from a book called Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago and the first line is, “The following day, no one died.” Super simple, but you know, he’s already setting something in place. And what would it look like if no one died on a particular day? You want to know.
Alessandra: And I want to know, like who’s no one? Is at no one at like the summer camp? And if so, why? Like, that seems like an odd thing to point out, right? Like, where people dying before or is it no one in the entire world, which is a whole entirely different type of book. I love that. Recently I was in a charity anthology and we were given the opening line and everyone had to write their own stories. There were two dozen stories that all had the same opening line and then they took it and it was amazing the different ways they went.
Joan: Yeah. I love that exercise because it also points out that, I mean, you know, there are a lot of principles to pay attention to in the first line or the first paragraph, but there are opening lines and opening pages as many writers as there are. You know, everybody does something different, but there are certain things to pay attention to. So one more first line, and then let’s look at some principles. And this is from Charlotte’s Web by E. B White. And it’s actually pretty rare; if you go to a bunch of novels on your bookshelf. And I think this is particularly true in memoir. It’s very hard to find books that open with dialogue. I do this in the class, I have people go and look, and most people come back and say, I found one and I looked at, you know, 30 books or whatever, but this is a great example of starting with dialogue that’s really compelling from Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, “Where’s Papa going with that ax, said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” Such a great line, where is Papa going with that ax?
Oh, hey Deborah, how are you? I’m glad to have you here. Some of these folks are in my online community, which if you’re writing a novel, you’re welcome to come join us. It’s, thatsagreatnovelist.com. It’s our writer’s studio and we’ve got like a thousand writers. It’s so great. OK, so let’s look at maybe – what do you think Alessandra, I’m thinking about looking first at like the elements to avoid on your opening page and then maybe…
Alessandra: Yeah, I love that. Yeah, let’s talk about what not to do. This is just as important as what to do.
Joan: And some ways it’s more important. And there are trends. What’s interesting is if you’re in a position like I am where you read an awful lot of manuscripts and I do have a page one prize and also a chapter one prize that I just started doing last year, and so I’ve been reading a ton of first pages and a ton of first chapters. So, I see a lot of the same things and they’re all these trends, like one of the trends I noticed in the chapter one prize last year is that the name Jake and the name Lilly are super common right now. So, many of the novels that I was reading have Jake and Lilly as main characters, kind of interesting. I don’t know why, but it’s just a little aside. But anyway, elements to avoid – this is one… actually let me back up, because what I want to say is everything I’m about to say has exceptions and caveats. If you have worked with me at all, you know, that I am not a big fan of rules, I’m a fan of guidelines, but whatever you have to do to tell the best story you can tell is what you should do. So, you know, what I’m about to say is not don’t ever do this, but if you’re going to do it, make sure it’s done for a really strong purpose and that it serves your novel.
So with that said elements to avoid – excessive backstory. I have seen this a lot. People often will put a prologue into a novel and do a big information dump a big thing of backstory. And there’s a reason for that. I think as writers, we do that because we need to know, right? So we write this thing and we feel like, oh, the reader needs to know that too. And the reader doesn’t need to know everything that you know. Excessive backstory is really, really boring, especially if it’s not needed. So if you start to read… the other piece of that is that it’s a sign that the writer hasn’t quite figured out yet where the novel actually begins. So it’s like, let me clear my throat for 30 pages and then we’ll start, you know, so try to avoid that.
Alessandra: Let me ask you a quick question on that. So if this is a book in a continuing series, what do you suggest is the best way to kind of catch up a reader if a lot of time has passed since the last book was published, or if someone is jumping into that series kind of in book three, what’s the best way to catch them up fairly quickly without just excessively back dumping?
Joan: Yeah. It’s a great question, and I’m always amazed at how well so many series writers do this. And the ones who do it best start the next book in the middle of something that’s already happening. And then they sort of pepper in the backstory, the details. You know, like the first time in book three that this particular character shows up, they will say he blah, blah, blah. And so, their introductions to characters and just small things put on the page. But the reality is, if somebody starts a series on in book three, you want that book to stand alone. So, not a big information dump at the beginning, start that novel, where that novel is going to start and then pepper in the backstory details – only the ones that are really necessary along the way. And you know, maybe those can all come in chapter one, but I’ve certainly seen it done well where they come throughout the book. And, you know, as a reminder, does that make sense?
Alessandra: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And a tip I’ve heard that I like is, you know, if you watch a movie like the third Star Wars movie or something like that, I mean, movies don’t have the opportunity typically. I mean, sometimes they’ll put like a chapter or a paragraph at the beginning on a black screen, but movies don’t have the opportunity to just ramble on with backstory. You know, they have to show everything in a scene. But a lot of times they completely kind of skip over and they just tell a story, you know, set and the thing. And they don’t really have to give a lot of backstory and the reader or the viewer is smart enough to figure things out as the stories go.
Joan: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So a couple of questions came in here from Nina and also from Christine. Nina is asking, do you recommend writing the opening line after you finish your first draft? Yes and no. You know, sometimes the opening line will come to you very quickly and right away and set the stage and take you on the journey of writing the story. Oftentimes, you are going to want to go back and revise that, in fact, chapter one in general. I advise people to like get off chapter one as fast as you can. And I’m a very slow writer and I write to discover, I’m a pantser, so I don’t plot things out. So, I very methodically will write chapter one, but by the time you get to the end of the book, so much stuff has happened that you may need to change chapter one. So yes, sometimes you get that opening line right out of the gate, and other times you’re going to want to come back and change it.
And then Christine is asking what if the prologue is less than one page as a paragraph? Well, so the prologue is a whole different beast, I think. And those of you guys who are here who have worked with me know that I’m usually not a fan of a prologue, although the book I’m working on now has two, so back to that, there are no rules only guidelines. And what I would say about a prologue is that if the prologue is absolutely necessary for the current story to be told, then include that, but it really shouldn’t be used as an information dump or a backstory thing. Readers want to get right into the story. And that’s the important piece they want to get right into the story.
Joan: So, anyway, let me let me go, just checking the time, because there’s so much so back to elements to avoid in your opening. And this is a very popular one, and I understand why it is, which is the waking up and the dream scenes. A lot of people will start with, she woke up on a sticky August evening while she was pregnant, whatever. And a lot of people will literally start with, she woke up and then got out of bed and then went and brushed her teeth. Don’t do that. Unless there’s a really, really compelling reason why you have to show this person waking up, like they’re turning into a giant cockroach, all of the fun stuff that, or if there’s something very unusual that happened in their life that put them in that place. But I will tell you having read so many manuscripts, it is done over and over and over. And if agents, editors, whoever are reading this, they are going to say, oh, here we go again.
And the other piece, and this is related is don’t start with a dream sequence. Don’t pull your reader into this really interesting dreaming thing. And then page three reveal, oh, it’s just a dream, because you’re setting a contract with the writer. I mean, with the reader, as soon as you begin to read the book, and you’re teaching them how to read the book. So if you teach them that this is what it’s going to be like, and then you’ve yanked the rug out from under them and say, oh, it was only a dream; that annoys readers very much.
Another one that is try to avoid long, long passages of landscape and description. Great exceptions of that; John Steinbeck, almost always starts with, you know, some long sweeping thing about those Salinas Valley in California. And that’s John Steinbeck. It’s sort of an older style. You can do it, but in this day and age, it’s probably best to avoid that. Another one, and I see this a lot and this one personally drives me crazy is talking heads. So you have a couple of characters who are talking to each other. You have no idea where they are. You don’t know what the setting is. They’re just sort of talking. And so, I call that talking heads because readers love to be grounded in a particular time, particular place, a particular setting. So, don’t just have people talking at each other without any context, it’s very unsettling. So I hear those dogs. Hi daughters.
Alessandra: I was like, where’s my mute button.
Joan: I’m surprised mine haven’t come out and said anything yet. And speaking of that, the other thing is, try to avoid generic settings. You know, vivid details are what brings stories to life. So if you’re writing a memoir and you’re starting out in the kitchen of your childhood home, and a particular thing happens there; say something about that kitchen that differentiates it from everybody else’s kitchen. Use a detail that may show the time period. You know, it was a yellow linoleum on the floor or chunky walnut cabinets or something; readers, crave that kind of detail, so really try to bring your setting to life. Another thing to avoid and I use Game of Thrones, the first book of Game of Thrones in my class. The opening page of that first book has so many characters on it that your head is spinning. And of course, you know, Game of Thrones, they have a million characters. And it’s interesting,
Alessandra: And none of them are names. They’re complicated names. I listened to Game of Thrones. It’s an audio book. I try to listen to it as an audio book and I got like five minutes into it. And I was like, I’m so confused because essentially like hearing the voices said – yeah, I was… locate, I couldn’t tell them between locations and people’s because they were all complicated.
Joan: Yeah. Hey, I just noticed that Debra and Elaine both mentioned landscape. So Deborah says, PD James, so much landscape and obviously PD James is very well-established and well-known so another great example of these aren’t rules. These are general guidelines about things to avoid. Where the Crawdads Sing endless vegetation, a huge success. Absolutely. And part of the reason for that, with Where the Crawdads Sing is that that setting, that rich lush setting in the, I want to say wetland, but that’s not right. You know what I mean?
Alessandra: I don’t know where it’s set, so that’s why I can’t.
Joan: Is almost a character in and of itself. And it’s a great… thank you Elaine, for pointing that out because it’s a great way to transition to elements to consider. Because if you’re working with an environment like she was in Where the Crawdads Sing, that takes on a life of its own, and that informs the tone of the novel, it sort of sets the scene. Everything is sort of, you know, feels connected to that setting and that setting is crucially important. Again, what I would say, and I bet if you go back and you look at that book, every time she shares a detail about that setting, it’s done for a particular reason. You know, everything that’s in your book needs to be there for a particular reason, so just something to think about. And Vince is asking, “Once upon a midnight dreary, should we stay away from using weather as a way to ease into a story?”
Not necessarily. I mean, it was a dark and stormy night, that’s so cliche, but I think the thing I would ask about that Vince is, do you need to ease into a story? And in some stories, maybe you do. Maybe you want to sort of slowly draw the reader in, you know, Steinbeck does that with the Salinas Valley, describing this beautiful thing, sort of drawing you from a long vista into the particulars of the story. So the question I would have is do you want to ease into the story or do you want to jump right in? And again, you need to have reasons for both of those things. So let me see what I’ve got here as well.
Alessandra: Yeah. That’s one of those rules that I always heard early on, like never start with the weather, but I love what you said at the very beginning of this, which was, you know, these are guidelines and I always say you can break rules as long as, you know, you’re breaking them and you know, why you’re breaking them. And just because I want to, isn’t normally a good enough reason.
Joan: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. That’s absolutely right. And you know, if you ask yourself that question as a writer, why am I doing this? And if the answer is well, just because I want to, that’s not good enough. You need to be able to say, I am doing this because fill in the blank. It’s also just a great thing to ask yourself as a writer, because you really do need to know the answer to that question.
Alessandra: It happens a lot with me with editors, they’ll ask like, oh, can we cut the scene? And if I can argue back and give reasons why I, you know, but a lot of times, if it’s just like, oh, well, there’s really no reason why we can’t just end the scene three pages earlier, than we should probably end the scene three pages earlier.
Joan: Yeah, that’s right. So I’m mindful of our time and we’ve got about three minutes left, so let me just tell you these elements to consider for your opening page. And I won’t go into detail, I’m just going to read what those are. Quickly establish your point of view, so the reader knows who the main character is. Begin your story in media rez, which means in the middle of things. Again, don’t wake up and set the stage, jump right into whatever the first thing is. And related to that is introduce an action. If you can begin, and it doesn’t have to be shoot them up action. It can just be something as currently happening. Open in a specific setting, no talking heads; be specific about where you are. Readers love to be grounded in a place. Build anticipation and suspense. And basically, that can be as simple as asking yourself as the writer, what questions is the reader asking themselves right now that they want answers to? That’s all it is. So read your first page, look at what our readers want to know and then how are you going to look at that. So it’s really as simple as that. And this is true for all your writing; write lean and strong sentences, no unnecessary words. They can be long, they can be complex as long as every word matters. So, lean and strong pros is powerful pros, so, important to look at that. And that’s sort of the nutshell of all of the different things that make a good opening page and things to avoid.
Alessandra: I love that. This is your very last opportunity for those that are watching live on YouTube and Facebook. If you have any final questions, I have a quick one. Do you have an ideal link that a first chapter would be, or a first scene because I know some authors, their first chapter is a bunch of scenes. So that opening scene, is there an ideal length or does it just vary depending on what you’re trying to get done?
Joan: It varies depending on what you’re trying to get done. Yeah. I mean, that’s true about most things I think. And what would recommend, and we do this in the class that I teach is, I share a ton of first pages and we read them and we study them. And people go off and grab their own first pages of their own work, but also whatever they have flying around the house. And you’ll see very quickly the wide variety, but the important thing is what are they doing that’s working and how can you figure that out? So it could be really short, it could be really long, as long as it’s working for the narrative itself.
Alessandra: We do have a question. This will be our last question and it’s from Patty. And she said, “If it’s a romance, do characters have to meet on the first page?” I’d love to answer this. I write romance novels, and I say, absolutely not. I was told early on that the first male that the female meets is the one that she’s going to end up with at the end and how incredibly boring is that. There’s never any guess scene or guesswork, so, no, absolutely. Oftentimes my characters make 20% into the book once they’ve had a chance to really ground themselves and have their own backstories and life. I said that it’s the last question, but Nina ask how we can find out more about your classes and that really kind of takes me into how they can find out more about you. So can you share where they can find you and your classes?
Joan: Yeah, absolutely. The best place to go is gutsygreatnovelist.com, and there, you will find a link to all my online classes to the online. It’s a free private, online community. A bunch of those folks are here today. It’s really terrific. That is for novelists and that’s free and you can just request to join and you’ll find a lot of stuff in there. But gutsygreatnovelists.com and click on classes and you’ll find the Writer Gripping First Page, which is open right now.
Alessandra: Fantastic. Thank you. guys. If we didn’t get to your questions, I’m so sorry. A bunch came in right at the end, but thank you all for joining us. Thank you for chiming in. And if you’re interested in meeting Marlow, which is our artificial intelligence that can read and critique your novel in just a few minutes, check us out at authors.ai. You can try it out for free or explore her more advanced option. So that’s www.authors.ai, and we’ll be back in two weeks with another First Draft Friday. Thank you so much, Joan. Thank you so much to everyone who joined us. I’m sorry we didn’t get to all your questions, but best of luck with your opening lines and opening chapters. And thank you, Joan, for joining us today.
Joan: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.