First at workshop I did for the Idaho Writers League conference a month or so ago and then for the Writer Unboxed Writer’s conference, I created a “first-page checklist.” This has grown out of seeing and working with more than 825 submissions to FtQ and the manuscripts I edit. I offer it below for your consideration and use. If you want to download a PDF version, click here. The checklist also appears in my new writing book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling, one of the content additions to the old Flogging a Quill book that is now out of print.
Let me focus for a moment on the first thing a first page should be doing:
- It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist.
This notion grew out of a workshop by literary agent and fiction analyst Donald Maass. He reported that, in his agenting business, editors will often reject a novel saying, “It ran out of steam.” The reasons most manuscripts fall short are that not enough is happening in the middle and that the editor is not truly engaged with the protagonist, there has been no strong connection made. Maass suggests, and I agree, that you’re in a stronger position if you begin making that connection on the first page. I went in and revised the first page of my WIP after learning this. I like it better.
A couple of caveats go with this checklist: first, they are not rules, they are guidelines. No writer should feel that their first-page narrative checks off every box—although it can, and if it does it has a better chance of being compelling.
Secondly, I’ve seen where a strong first-person narrative can ignore many of these items and still compel. Part of what the outliers do is have a strong voice, the one ingredient besides story questions that can compel a page turn. Another part is that a first-person narration can raise strong story questions even without action, a scene, etc.
Before I post the list, let me offer once again a FREE ebook copy (Kindle, epub/Nook, PDF) of my new Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling in return for reviews. Just email me and I can send you a copy.
The paperback is now for sale on my website--it's signed, free shipping, and discounted $16.99 $15. It's also at Amazon, but not signed. The Kindle edition is available here. And here's a free PDF sample.
And now here’s a first-page checklist, though it wouldn’t hurt to hold all of your pages up to these criteria. The checklist can be a good tool for spotting shortcomings where a narrative sags. PDF here.
A First-page Checklist
- It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
- Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
- What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
- What happens moves the story forward.
- What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
- The protagonist desires something.
- The protagonist does something.
- There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
- It happens in the NOW of the story.
- Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?
For what it’s worth.
© 2014 Ray Rhamey