What Makes a Great First Page in a Novel?

Someone in one of my writing groups asked what makes a great first page. It’s an excellent question, and no two answers will be alike, despite what the bestseller lists and books on writing “the breakout novel” tell us.

Character always draws me into a book. I don’t read many thrillers or fast-paced stories. Someone reported the advice that a first line of a novel should make you nervous. I think that works well for readers who love suspenseful stories. I’m not so reeled in by suspense, but a great character in the book’s opening — even an unappealing person — will catch me.  

A Man Called Ove did this, with the most unique character I’ve ever read about. I kept reading just to see who was going to punch him in the face. Here are three book openings whose characters, sketched nimbly in first paragraphs, hooked me. And the books proved just as good as their openings!

A Man Called Ove, by Frederik Backman
 
Ove is fifty-nine.
            He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policemn’s flashlight. He stands at the counter of a shop where owners of Japanese cars come to purchase white cables. Ove eyes the sales assistant for a long time before shaking a medium-sized white box at him.
            “So this is one of those O-Pads, is it?” he demands.
            The assistant, a young man with a single-digit body mass index, looks ill at ease. He visibly struggles to control his urge to snatch the box out of Ove’s hands.
 
> What is it about an unlovable chaaracter that can be so fascinating? It took me many pages to develop any sympathy for or liking of the curmudgeon Ove, and yet I kept turning pages. The humor, the complete meanness of the man, the way we’re inside his head and yet see others reacting to him as if they’re allergic to his laconic vitriol. Laconic vitriol … now there’s a character description you don’t see every day. Unique.
 
The Time Traveler’s Boyfriend, by Annabelle Costa
 
            Tick tock … tick tock … tick tock …
            Do you hear that ticking noise? I swear to God it’s like I’m going crazy, but I hear something ticking. And no, it’s not my biological clock. Yes, my biological clock is ticking (I know, Mom), but it’s not audibly ticking. Like, I don’t walk down the street and hear it. Nobody says, “Hey, what’s that noise? Is that your ovaries?”
 
> The reason this character comes alive is a combination of the title and the ticking described with such a distinctive voice that we know before we get her age that she’s mid-thirties and something very weird is happening. If her ovaries were just ticking Hello? When are we getting pregnant? I wouldn’t have kept reading, but I know someone’s going down a time tunnel, and as time travel interests me, I’m hooked. Such books don’t usually begin in the manner of chicklit, so I’m fascinated enough to keep going and see how the author will make this combination work.
 
Longbourn,  by Jo Baker
 
The butler … Mrs. Hill and the two housemaids …
            There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going witghout clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September. Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purification of the household’s linen was nonetheless a dismal prospect for Sarah.
            The air was sharp at four thirty in the morning, when she started work. The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilblains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day to be got through, and this was just the very start of it.
 
> Who couldn’t want to know how anyone could get through such a day? And what the heck are chilblains? Even if the title and epigraph didn’t tip you off that this is the Upstairs, Downstairs (well, mostly downstairs) of the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice, and it didn’t tip me, you’d want to read on to find out if poor Sarah survives even one day of this labor.
Visit http://RachelDacus.net for more information and writing by Rachel Dacus.
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