With many literary agents wanting only the first 5-10 pages with a query, those opening pages are crucial to readers and traditional publishing alike. Yet as a critical reader, the main advice I’ve given is to delete or rewrite whole paragraphs. With so much to set up, it’s easy to focus on “have I covered this bit yet”? in chapter one, as opposed to, am I presenting my main character as relatable, or interesting and about to embark upon a journey on which the reader wishes to accompany them? And do I foreshadow intriguing story problems to come, without distancing my readers with chunks of telling, boring them with info dumps or confusing them with time jumps? To help you reflect upon and edit, or plan and write your opening pages in a clear and engaging way, I’ll unpack 9 reflective questions.
What do I Want the Reader to Know About my Setting?
Let’s orient the reader. Let’s show them that the main character is on another planet or it’s the year 1492. I’d try to get at least one clear thing about location and which point in time the story is taking place on the first page. I’d consider doing it while introducing the MC, by thinking about things such as: what technology is your MC using? What clothes are they wearing? If they’re traveling, what is transport like in your era/ world?
Eg. In my second trilogy, my main character has to go through a checkpoint in the stone walls of a city which, until that point, sounds like anywhere in the modern world. Until my MC gazes out the window at the massive, magically shielded fence lining a deserted highway, and expresses his hope to see the monsters it’s designed to keep off the road flying overhead. Having established that my contemporary-sounding novel actually takes place in a fantasy setting, my story moves on, elaborating on world specific details and history bit by bit, later on.
Where is the Best Location to Introduce My MC?
You’ll also want to consider: what’s most important for a reader to know about my main character at the outset? Which personal factors or relationships will impact on my character’s arc? Which factors in my world/ planet, country, government or society’s beliefs impact on my MC’s life or the lives of people they love? In other words, which location is most appropriate to show the deepest desires of my MC’s heart? To show their want or goal, the lie they believe and to hint at the truth and personal flaws they may address along the way? If your external conflict extends beyond your character, I’d consider where can I place my MC to show these things and show the external conflict?
As your MC moves through the opening scene, I’d slip in casual references to what they see, here and do to show your reader the time and place your character is living in.
What Do I Have My MC Do in the Opening Scene?
That depends on what you want to show about them and their world. For example, instead of explaining that Geoff works on a planet being mined for star fuel which powers the galactic empire’s space travel and is under constant threat of meteor strikes, you could have him stub his toe on a large rock, and comment, “Haven’t they finished clearing the meteor strike yet? If the empire doesn’t staff this mine properly soon, we’re going to get buried and they can kiss their precious star fuel goodbye.”
Whatever you have your MC doing -choose a location, action and or dialogue which shows the reader who and where they are. For example, I open my prologue with Prince Ruarnon strolling through the palace of his people’s long-time enemies. As heir to the throne, he wears a mask of calm, posing to enemy servants, officials and enemy guards he’s walking past as the grave-faced ruler he believes he needs to be. He conceals his inner tension -an act and a lie tested by his character arc. He walks, not with friends or family, but with adult body guards, showing that this teen moves in the adult world and struggles with the isolation of it.
Where can I place my main character and what can I have them doing to show, through their organic reactions in thought, feeling and behaviour, what guides their beliefs and thinking? And to foreshadow their role in my story’s external conflict -relative to other players?
Whatever you decide, try not to begin with logistics. If you start with an MC waking up, reader me would quickly lose interest, unless your character’s first move is to insert a re-charged power source into their arm, or let pet bats in to eat giant insects, which have swarmed around the inside ceiling overnight. Have your MC doing something interesting. If you open with them driving somewhere, have them sweating and cursing as they rehearse the conversation in which they will soon try to persuade their spouse to move somewhere the spouse hates, because your MC has a fantastic job opportunity there.
Start with character action or conversation hinting at underlying tensions (in personal relationships or the entire SFF world), or at something being wrong -hint at an interesting story to come.
What can I show through dialogue?
Who are the key people and what are the key relationships in your MC’s life? What is the nature of those relationships? Are they under strain/ impacted by past events or will they undergo change during the MC’s journey? If so, how can you use dialogue, gestures and other actions to indicate the current state of your MC’s key relationship/ relationships in an early scene? You might also like to consider how you can use dialogue to show what’s relatable to readers, or unique and interesting about your MC’s relationships. Is there tension, suspicion or lack of trust beneath the surface? Banter? Do your MC and their significant other anticipate each other’s thoughts and wishes?
What other details do I Want My Reader to Know?
Answers which may leap to mind include showing off the MC’s personality, indicating their background, life experience, education, knowledge and skills or prior learning which will help them tackle the story problem. But before you put ALL of this at once, consider: What is the minimum the reader needs to know at any one point for this scene to make sense?
If page one opens with your main character being yelled at by her office boss and thinking it’s time for a career change, do we need to know right then that she was raised by a single mother? If she meets her mother for coffee after work on page two, and this conversation is the inciting event which inspires her to turn a love of deep sea diving into a career assisting marine archaeologists -maybe. But, if any of the things you want to introduce aren’t relevant to what your MC sees, hears, thinks or feels about whatever they’re responding to in the present scene -now is not the time to mention other stuff -and a paragraph or more about other things is most likely an info dump.
How Much Info Do I Show At Once?
Ideally, as little as possible. Your character comments on a strange crack in the wall, which later turns out (like Dr Who series 6) to be a crack in the universe. Then the scene moves on. Your thieves gather after a heist, one comments that someone is missing, the others decide there’s no time to waste and get out of there. Only later do they learn of the missing member’s body being found and that they have rivals -probably the same people stalking them on their next heist.
Each time you introduce a little piece of world building via dialogue or what your character observes in the present scene, I would move your character further into the scene or through a location. Have them take in scenery or do the next action, before slipping another piece of world building or backstory in.
Give your reader time to ingest new information.
This is especially true for bringing new characters onto the scene. If possible, stagger their arrivals. Give time and show a unique thing or two the reader can remember them by before bringing the next character/ pairing etc on stage. And don’t have multiple character names starting with the same letter, or similar sounding names- that’s highly likely to position readers to confuse characters.
What does the Reader Need to Know about Backstory?
There’s a reason this question isn’t, “what do I want the reader to know?” The answer could be “all of it” and the likely result is info-dumping -slabs of telling which become disembodied from the main character and disconnected from the present scene. That makes it very hard for a reader to get into your story or know what’s going on, let alone want to keep reading. So, I would ask,
What must my reader know about my character’s past to understand my character’s actions in the present scene?
My book opens with my MC about to discover that an ancient conflict between his people and their long-time enemies is flaring again. To understand his feelings and reactions to this news, the reader needs some knowledge of conflict prior to the present story. The question I asked to write my prologue was, “how do I give the reader an idea of the state of affairs between the empire and the small kingdom it has always wanted to conquer, but never been able to hold?”
I did it by getting my MC to wander through the enemy palace on a diplomatic visit. His thoughts and reactions to the presence of his long-time enemies standing all around him tell the reader a lot about how he feels about them, and give present story context for snippets of backstory -just enough (I hope!) for the reader to understand the present state of uneasy peace. Then an assassin tries to kill my MC, and my book continues to reveal more about past conflict in the context of my MC grappling with signs that war will break out again -soon.
As your opening scene unfolds, continue asking: how does what my MC is seeing, doing and thinking relate to backstory?
Is it essential to the reader understanding that I tie in backstory every time it relates to my character’s thoughts? Which bits of backstory can wait until the reader is better oriented in the present story?
How often across the first 5 pages (and whole first chapter) have I slipped in references to backstory? Is there too much information across those pages for a reader to easily take in information AND follow present events?
Is the backstory ‘backstory’ -or does my present story start in the wrong place?
If the narration of your first chapter wanders back to specific past events the reader needs to know about -and narrates these in past tense- you risk confusing the reader with a past and a present story, neither of which they can properly grasp. You also risk the reader getting bored with what reads as an interruption to the present story and so skipping over the backstory. (Because if the backstory mattered, surely it would be the present scene? As a reader, I find a past event narrated in past tense has no immediacy or tension, so to be blunt, I have no interest in persevering with reading about it.
If you keep writing full paragraphs about a key event prior to the current story -that prior event might need to be your opening scene, narrated as the present story, so it neither bores, nor confuses the reader as they try to get orientated in the present story.
Are Your Characters Moving in the First Five Pages?
If your character is on the move, going somewhere and doing something, that gives the feel that your story is also going somewhere. Slip some clues in that something isn’t quite right, hinting at tension and or conflict to come, and you have an engaging first five pages. Having everyone sitting around talking may make the reader may wonder where the story is going and if it is in fact going somewhere.
It’s hard to show a character has agency if they’re sitting and chatting with friends in scene one. The first five pages need to prove your MC is an active character, who’s going to do interesting things a reader wants to read about. ‘Active’ doesn’t have to mean taking control of their life or achieving milestones -that might not be possible for them at present. If it isn’t possible, I’d show your MC’s aspirations and small steps your MC can and is taking to meet those aspirations.
Like any rule, there are exceptions. One of my novels has my MC sit at a table with his mother and father on page 3. Mum has baked a cake to celebrate my 15 yo MC’s achievements and is trying to play proud mum (if not happy wife.) Dad is being rude, ungrateful, self-centred and domineering, while my MC’s internal monologue about his father is overtly aggressive and he’s sitting with fists clenched under the table. The characters are still because stillness amplifies the tension of the family dynamics and my MC’s inner tension.
Is having my characters remain stationary at any point in the first five pages a necessary or effective way to show something about my MC, their relationships, world etc?
If you don’t have a particular reason for keeping your characters immobile so early on -get them moving!
🔸 Orient the reader in space and time.
🔸 Consider: Where can I place my main character and what can I have them doing to show, through their organic reactions in thought, feeling and behaviour, what guides their beliefs and thinking?
How can I foreshadow their role in my story’s external conflict?
🔸 Start with character action or conversation hinting at underlying tensions (in personal relationships or the entire SFF world), or at something being wrong -hint at an interesting story to come.
🔸 Introduce world building and backstory in small snippets, with character movement or action in between, to give the reader time to digest information about your story and character’s world.
🔸 Consider: what must my reader know about my character’s past to understand my character’s actions in the present scene?
🔸 Make sure narration focuses on the present scene, with no more than a sentence or two of backstory or world building, to let the reader get oriented in the present story.