The passage above comes from Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Highsmith’s recognition of the importance of the first page of a novel isn’t unique. In The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Publishing, David Morrell counsels:
Common sense tell us that the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page are the where a book makes its strongest impression.
Similarly, Literary Agent Janet Reid has said:
When I look at a book in a bookstore, I open it to the first page and read for maybe five seconds. If it doesn’t get me involved in that very short amount of time, I set it back down and look at something else.
But I think Mickey Spillane put it best:
The first page sells the book. The last page sells the next book.
There are 130 million books in this world. If you want someone to read yours, you’re going to have to grab them from the start.
I’m fascinated by first pages of novels—not just because of the work they have to do, but also because of what they tell us about the author. When you write a novel, you build a world. You can put a door to this world almost anywhere, but you only get to make one door. For a thriller, do you start with the protagonist? Do you start with the villain? Has the murder happened? Is it about to? Do we descend into the scene from above, or do we start with the hand that holds the gun. Whose head are we in? Whose voices do we hear? Are we disoriented, or is everything clear? Is it now, or later, or sometime long ago? The same story can start a million different ways.
Now that I write, I can’t read the first page of a novel without wondering why the story started where it did. But why wonder, when I could just ask? That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to ask writers I admire to explain why they started their stories where they did. If they respond, I’ll post it on this blog. I hope it will be as interesting to others as it is to me.
The first writer I’ve asked to participate is Michael J. Sullivan. Michael is a good friend of mine, and his advice to me over the last few years has been invaluable. He is the author of The Riyria Revelations, an acclaimed and popular six-book epic fantasy series. He’s been kind enough to draft a guest-post about the first page of first volume in the series, Theft of Swords. I’ll be posting it shortly.