First Page Do's and Don'ts

by Susan J. Zall
Creator of Writer's Infusion

These days, when it’s so easy to click a button to move onto something new, it’s more important than ever to capture the reader’s interest from the very beginning.


Much of what I’ve learned, I credit to the Writer’s Idol session run by Grub Street of Boston. This event consists of three literary agents listening to the first page of a person’s book, followed by a critique that is often direct, bordering on brutal. If you can withstand the criticism, however, the feedback is terrific.

Here are some techniques to do this, and some habits to avoid. Thanks to the WI gang for help with this list.

  • Read the first pages of your favorite books. Then go to your local bookstore and read the first pages of bestsellers that seem interesting. What caught your attention and made you want to read more? Or, what made you put the book back?
  • How is your book different from any other? Voice? Character? Unusual location? Let that come through.
  • Allow the reader to attach to a character. It’s just confusing when we have to remember 5+ names within the first 1 ½ pages.
  • Voice—that elusive attribute that makes your character unique—is key.
  • Leave out unnecessary description. Detail can distance the reader from the story. If you’re so busy telling the reader about that cool car (or book or dress or sword), they’ll lose interest in the characters and story.
  • If introducing the ordinary, teach something new.
  • If submitting the first few pages of your book with your query, have them copy edited. There’s nothing more annoying than misplaced commas, no commas at all, spelling mistakes, etc. Also, make sure it’s formatted properly. Half an inch indent at the beginning of each paragraph, 1” margins, generally 12 point font, etc. Don’t give the agent an excuse to toss your manuscript.
  • Don’t try to cram too much into the first page. Bring us in, but don’t overwhelm us.
  • Unless imperative to the voice and/or character, don’t swear on the first page.
  • Per usual: show, don’t tell. Don’t give us a summary/info dump. Bring us through the scene step-by-step.
  • If action is backstory, it’s difficult to make it seem like your story is moving forward. Thus, make sure the content on the first page(s) isn’t better served later in the book. This is called backstory; Jenn wrote a great blog about backstory on our website.
  • Don't start with long descriptions, dreams, weather, alarm clocks, or a character looking in the mirror.

Questions? Anything to add? Let us know!