The Five-Fingered Grip of Firsts
A lot of weight is given to the opening of a novel, and for good reason. You need to pull your reader in, so they have no choice but to keep reading. You do this using the five-fingered grip of firsts.
1. The First Line
This is the initial grip of the story, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. Writers sometimes worry too much about the first line, to the neglect of the other four fingers that make the firsts fist. A good first line should set the tone for the tale. It should cause the reader to ask questions, not provide answers to questions no one asked. It should be intriguing but not distracting. It is, at base level, a hook.
2. The First Paragraph
Continuing from the first line—and including it—is the first paragraph, which is the thing people will read in a bookshop (or in an online preview) to see if the book is for them. Much like the first line, there needs to be questions raised, but one of the questions the reader asked from the first line should be answered in the first paragraph. Not explicitly, of course—everything is inferred—but with enough subtlety and subtext to give the reader a sense of satisfaction whilst also fuelling further curiosity.
3. The First Page
This is where the investment in a book is won or lost. Following a successful first paragraph, the reader will continue down the page. It is at the point of page-turning that the reader knows they must continue the story. This first page should be interesting, and feature at least one thing actually happening. It is not a place for over-description or wanton exposition, but instead a frame for action. There must be tension, even if only basic and surface-level.
4. The First Scene
Once the reader has turned the first page, they will keep reading until the end of the first scene. This is why you need to have things happening and not just tell the reader about someone, somewhere, something, or some idea. The first scene—whatever happens—needs to feel almost like a very short story, or flash fiction piece, but with enough left unsaid and enough threads opened that the reader will continue beyond it. Imagine the first scene as a standalone: would anyone read it? If the answer is no, because they need the context of what comes later, then it doesn’t work.
5. The First Chapter
This does not have to be literal—chapter breaks are the points where the reader would put the book down. Usually it is after a few scenes, and it is the moment where the reader would pause and reach for a bookmark, for whatever reason. This first section—which can be referred to as the first chapter—needs to be engrossing and have tension, interest, and action. Most importantly, it needs the three things all stories need: a character, a motivation, and a setting.
Get the five fingers of the fist of firsts right and you will grip your reader tight around the eyes so they have to keep reading. They will become emotionally invested in your story, and with that they will be pulled in.
© 2019 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.