Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

A Compelling First Page

The first page of your novel can make the difference between a browser buying your book—or putting it back on the shelf. Most browsers check out the first page before deciding to buy. That gives you about twenty seconds to catch their interest. Would your first page close the sale?

Tips for a compelling first page:

1. Start with a scene that immediately pulls the reader into your story world. Focus on brimming conflict—whether internal or external. Something to make the reader ask, “What will happen next?” Don’t load up the first page with a bunch of backstory.

2. Write a smashing first line—one interesting and unique enough to make the browser want to read on. It can be in various forms—dialogue, description, action, a perception or belief of the POV character in the scene, etc. Following are examples from a few of my novels (entire first scenes can be read at my website:

Dialogue: “Ever hear the dead knocking?” (Dark Pursuit)

Description: After twenty midnights among the dead, Victor Mendoza didn’t spook easily. (Dread Champion)

Action: The sounds drifted into her consciousness like wraiths in the night. (Brink of Death)

Perception: Any man going on this mission wasn’t coming back.

In crafting your first line, ask, “What is the most compelling thought/point of this scene?” Whatever it is, don’t bury it on page three! Find a way to work it into your first sentence.

Consider these first paragraphs of a novelist’s work in progress submitted for this article:

Avery Ferrell waited outside the rundown bar on the edge of town. He tugged at the end of his bow tie and winced at the pain from the slash across his knuckles. His hand would kill him tomorrow as he signed court documents, but that drunken bore deserved it. He stepped over the immobile man blocking the doorway and walked to the corner of the cinderblock building.

His mouth twisted into a sneer at the absurdity of wearing a tuxedo in such a place, but he craved a dose of sordid reality after tonight’s gala. “Only the right people at our receptions, dear,” his mother would say. Her insistence on overseeing the guest list guaranteed a most proper, and most tedious, event.

And once he announced his candidacy for senate, every socialite wannbe gathered around his coattails. And that maddening mayor simpered at his every word like a smitten spinster. By the time he’d orchestrated his exit, all his usual haunts were closed.

He gave a low throaty chuckle as he thought of the one glint of excitement. Yes, indeed; that little blonde apparition from his past brightened up the party considerably. In fact, she should be here any minute.

The author has done a lot of things right. This first page introduces us to a womanizer and rabble-rouser who’s running for the Senate. He’s an interesting character, even though we may not approve of his behavior. The most compelling point about Avery is that he’s trying to keep a foot in two very different worlds—and apparently it’s not destined to work so well. But arrogant Avery doesn’t see that. That he’s brawling in a tux symbolizes how those two worlds are already clashing—hence a great place to start the novel. Why not make this point loud and clear in the first sentence, then build upon it? That requires adding some text while deleting extraneous words, and switching some “telling” sentences into “showing.” How about:

Avery Ferrell tugged his bow tie and winced at the slash on his knuckles. His hand would kill him tomorrow as he signed court documents, but the drunken bore at his feet deserved it. Nobody got away with calling Avery names. He stepped over the unconscious man in the doorway of the rundown bar and stalked to the corner of the building.

Avery’s mouth twisted. Absurd, wearing a tux to a seedy place like this. But after tonight’s gala he craved a dose of reality, and his usual haunts were long closed. “Only the right people at our reception, dear,” his mother had declared. Her insistence on overseeing the guest list guaranteed a most proper and tedious event. And after he’d announced his candidacy for senate, every socialite wannabe hung on his coattails. Even the mayor simpered like some smitten spinster.

He chuckled low in his throat. Ah, but that little blonde apparition from his past had certainly brightened up the party. Avery leaned against the cinderblock building and gazed down the street.

She should be here any minute.

Picture that browser in the store as you craft your first page—and write to close the sale.