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This isn’t a secret in the publishing world, in fact, it’s why writers spend so much time and effort making that first 250 gleam. But I think, sometimes, writers don’t fully realize everything that the first 250 words of their manuscript tells readers, whether they intend them to or not.
So here we go.
- This is my protagonist. Regardless of whether or not your opening page starts with your actual protagonist, readers will assume the first character they meet is indeed your protagonist. Later pages will confirm or disprove that assumption, but by and large, this is what readers will think.
This is also the first point of connection for your readers—they're immediately going to be making judgments about your protagonist, and it's up to you to decide what kinds of assumptions you want your readers to be making. First impressions matter, and this is where you want your readers to start to care about your protagonist (otherwise, that aforementioned point of connection doesn't exist).
If you don’t mention anyone in the first 250 words of your manuscript, then readers are likely to feel a little lost and disconnected. Characters ground us in the world of your book, and without them at the beginning, it’s very difficult to emotionally connect with your story—after all, no one is there to connect to.
- This is my protagonist’s world. In the very first pages, readers are absorbing as much as they can about the world of your book. With the first 250, readers start off with absolutely nothing (except for a quick summary, that is)—we don’t know what your protagonist looks like, where the first scene will take place, the rules of the world, etc. Your first page should start to paint that picture for the readers, and while obviously not everything is going to be answered on the first page, by the end of the initial 250, readers should at least be able to picture where the scene is taking place, and have some initial hints of the world rules in your book.
If you don’t give your readers any hints to grab on to about the book’s world at all, then they’re going to feel a little lost again—this time, because your story will be happening in a vacuum, which means we have characters to hold on to but nothing else. Unfortunately, this is just as problematic as not having a protagonist to hold on to at all…
- This is what the writing/voice will be like. Fair or not, readers are going to make assumptions about your entire book based off that first 250.
Read that again. I’ll wait. Got it? Okay.
While a scattered typo, grammatical error, or line of passive voice isn’t going to kill your manuscript, having more than one example of any of those in your first 250 is immediately going to give the reader the impression that they can expect much more of it in the rest of your manuscript. Voice works much the same way—however your first page is written, and whatever bits of voice you give us on the first page, is what the readers are going to expect from the rest of the manuscript.
Remember, however, that this works both ways: not only does it mean you have to make your first 250 shine, but it means you have to make the rest of your manuscript equally shiny. It’s not at all uncommon to see writers polish their first 250 (or first fifty pages), only to forget to do the same to the rest of their manuscript (which didn’t get critiqued quite as much). The only way to avoid this is to try to apply any critique you get on the beginning of your manuscript to the rest of the story.
- This is a hint of the initial conflict. Right, so, while you definitely don’t need to spell out the full conflict on the first page (in fact, it’d probably be a mess if you did), readers should have some kind of hint of conflict. It doesn’t have to be the conflict, even, it could be something related to the main conflict, or something that will lead it up to it. But planting the seeds early gives readers something to follow and become immediately interested in as they start reading.
If you don’t have even a hint of conflict on the first page, then you risk making your readers worry that the story might be on the slow side. They might give you some leeway through the first chapter, but I definitely recommend you try to plant those seeds of conflict as soon as you organically can.
As a reader, what do you look for on the first page of a book?
What are the first 250 words of your MS telling readers? Writer @Ava_Jae breaks it down. (Click to tweet)