You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Of course you know that’s true when you’re meeting people for the first time, but did you know the same is true for your book?
You have a tiny window of opportunity to grab your reader and convince them to finish reading your book. Only 50% to 60% of readers finish the books they start. That means there’s a 50/50 chance that a reader will finish your book.
Shortsighted authors may not care if a reader finishes because the sale has already been made. But it’s important to realize that readers rarely recommend a book they don’t finish. All your marketing strategies should aim to get your reader to finish your book so they’ll recommend it!
That reader-to-reader recommendation ignites the word-of-mouth marketing, but it never happens if a reader doesn’t finish your book.
Your book must make a first impression that hooks a reader in the first few pages, convinces them to buy the book, and retains their commitment to finishing.
That’s a lot of pressure on those first 50 pages.
If you haven’t captured their attention by page 50, you’ve lost them. They may not realize what’s happened. They’ll simply put your book on their nightstand and let it collect dust.
You probably have a stack of unfinished books on your own nightstand. But you don’t need to feel guilty about it. It’s not a moral failing on your part. Those authors failed to capture your commitment within the first 50 pages, and the blame for your unfinished stack of books falls on the authors for not holding your attention.
How can you, as an author, write a book that people just have to finish? They’re committed to finishing the book because they can’t stand not knowing how it ends.
So how do you do that?
I asked Angela Hunt because, with 165 published books to her name and millions of copies sold, she clearly knows how to make a powerful first impression with the first 50 pages. She’s a friend of the Novel Marketing show and a Christie Award winner. If you’re wondering how she writes so many books, listen to her interview about How to Write More Productively.
How do you craft a character readers care about right away?
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Novelists must grab their readers in those first 50 pages and make them care about the characters. Readers must care about your characters enough to want to know what happens next. How do you craft a character readers care about right away?
Angela Hunt: You have to create a bond between the reader and the character, and the best way to create that bond is to give your character certain qualities. You need to create a character that is vulnerable, admirable, flawed, and, in some way, funny.
How do you make the character vulnerable?
If you’re writing a kidnapping story, for example, you have the option of choosing your protagonist. You could choose the kidnapped girl, her father, or the detective. Whoever you choose, you must allow the reader to bond with your protagonist by getting inside the head of the character.
If you choose the detective as your protagonist, you could make him vulnerable by giving him a new partner. Maybe he didn’t defend his last partner, who’s now laid up in the hospital. If that’s the case, your detective won’t feel his usual confidence.
If you choose the little girl, you could make her an outcast at school. Maybe she’s a brainy kid who’s really smart but not accepted. Any reader who’s ever been slighted by their friends at school will identify with her.
How do you make a protagonist admirable?
We love people we can admire. Give your protagonist a noble nature, physical strength, or strong moral convictions. Make them virtuous or spiritual. You could endow them with a special talent or ability. Perhaps your character can do something that nobody else can do as well, and it’s a surprising gift.
Thomas: Competence is so appealing. I get very irritated by an incompetent character. Writers need to use those other tools you’ve mentioned to make me like an incompetent character. I like to read stories about skilled people who know what they’re doing.
If you work with an incompetent person who is terrible at their job, you do not want to read a book about that guy! No one in the office likes that guy unless he has a great personality.
Angela: Even anti-heroes need to be admirable. Don Corleone in The Godfather was a criminal. He had people murdered. But he had an ethic: They did not sell drugs because drugs hurt children.
If you have an incompetent protagonist, give them a corresponding, overpowering virtue that makes us admire your character.
How do you choose a character flaw?
Angela: Every character needs a flaw. Superman couldn’t handle kryptonite, so even the greatest, most admirable character needs to have some weakness that can be exploited. If you don’t give your protagonist a flaw, you won’t really have a story because the bad guy has to find that weakness and exploit it.
Does my character need a sense of humor?
Angela: Give your character a sense of humor. Self-deprecating humor works especially well. If you create a great man or woman who’s smart, clever, and skilled, giving him or her a self-deprecating sense of humor can keep them from seeming proud.
Should my own life be reflected in my character?
Angela: Think of a time when you were grieving, sad, tired, or disappointed. Write down all the emotions you felt during that time and transfer those onto your protagonist. If you felt it in real life, your reader has felt it too.
Create a character who is vulnerable, admirable, flawed, and funny, and you’ll have a realistic character readers can identify and bond with.
Then do the same thing for the major supporting characters and the antagonist if your story has one.
How do my character’s goals relate to the first 50 pages?
Angela: All these other characters need to have their own goals and reasons for being in the story. They don’t exist simply to play off your protagonist.
Thomas: The stronger their desire to reach their own goal, the more they want something, the more they can move the plot forward. An active protagonist is likable. A character who sits at home and lets the world happen to them, who is merely a victim of the author, is unappealing.
Creating a protagonist who is an inactive victim is probably the most common mistake I see in the books I read. The author has typically made the character tolerably likable, but the character doesn’t move the plot forward because they’re written as a victim.
As a reader, I don’t want to feel like a victim throughout the whole story. That doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen to your character, but readers want to see them protagging. I don’t want to read about a character being drug along by random events happening around them.
Does my inciting incident happen in the first 50 pages?
Angela: Your inciting incident, the main thing that happens that turns the story engine and transfers your character from his ordinary world to the special world, will probably happen after the first 50 pages.
Your character may merely be existing, especially if it’s a child or someone in a nine-to-five job, until your inciting incident occurs. Then boom! After the inciting incident, the character establishes a goal and becomes proactive rather than reactive. But the first 50 pages still have to be interesting, and you have to start with action.
Many beginning writers have heard, “Start with action.” In our hypothetical kidnapping story, the author might start with the little girl standing on the corner when a black van pulls up. Someone grabs the girl, throws her in the van, and the van speeds away.
That’s a horrible beginning because we don’t know the little girl, so we don’t care about her. We read essentially that same story in the newspaper often. All over the US, kids are missing, so we’ve grown calloused to that scene.
The trick is to make your reader bond with the little girl, to begin to love her within the first 50 pages, so that when the inciting incident happens, the reader cares so much that they can’t stop reading.
Thomas: It’s about growing that emotional connection with the character so that we are invested. When the girl is taken, we feel like it’s a family member, and we need to know what’s happening.
One advantage of writing in a series is that readers spend more time with your characters and become more invested with each book.
Angela: True. Humans are naturally self-centered. We may hear about a death, but if it doesn’t affect us personally, we say, “Oh, that’s terrible,” and ten minutes later, we’re back to our ordinary routine. But when it’s someone whose absence will affect how we live, we feel it deeply and grieve.
Your goal for the first 50 pages is to make your protagonist matter that much to your reader. You must establish that bond.
Thomas: Truly, 50 pages is a lot of real estate to work with. You have three to 12 chapters to accomplish the goal of getting your reader to love your protagonist. But what’s the breakdown in those first 50 pages?
What should we do in the first ten pages to set up for the next ten?
Angela: Your first line is the most important sentence in your entire book.
Notice that I did not say the author’s note, epigraph, dedication, forward, or prologue. Many readers flip right over those things, which is one reason I recommend avoiding prologues unless it’s necessary.
Whatever you do, do not grab an exciting scene from the end of the book and stick it up front as a prologue to spice up the beginning, and then write “Two weeks earlier…” at the head of chapter one. No, no, no. I know they do that on TV, but don’t do it in your book.
Your challenge is to come up with an exciting beginning.
Today’s reader is a different creature than the readers from the 1940s and 1950s. We have so many distractions. If a reader picks up a book and plans to commit hours to reading it, she has to be hooked from the get-go.
How do you hook readers with the story from the start?
Angela: I’ve come up with some principles to help you grab your readers’ attention. You’ll see these “rules” broken more often in older books. Today’s writers are wising up to the fact that today’s readers want to explode off the starting line.
Don’t open your novel with the scenery.
Don’t write a first line that describes rooms, furniture, people, or even the weather. Only Snoopy gets to write, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
The best first line I ever read was from a Jodi Picoult novel:
“Ross Wakeman succeeded the first time he tried to kill himself, but not the second or the third.”–Jodi Picoult, Second Glance
Isn’t that marvelous? There’s no weather, description, or scenery.
Notice what she does. First, she begins by talking about a person. We are social humans who like to know about other people. We like to read about and eavesdrop on other people’s lives.
So put a person in your first sentence.
Second, say something that raises a question in the reader’s mind. Jodi makes us ask, “If he succeeded the first time he tried to kill himself, then who brought him back to life to try again?” How he tried to kill himself the second and third times. So many questions are evoked in my mind through that opening sentence.
Thomas: That’s a good line because it floods you with curiosity. If he succeeded the first time, how could he even have a second time? Now I have to read more of the book to find out.
Angela: Authors must jerk the reader into a question. Don’t explain everything. Many beginning writers might feel the urge to explain who Ross is and why he tried to kill himself.
Your goal is not to explain. Your goal is to keep the reader hooked so they’ll read late into the night.
First Lines That Work
I asked some writer friends to send me some of their first lines to use in a lesson I’m writing. Here are a few good ones I received:
“My gymnastics career ended with an injury, and I wasn’t even the one who got hurt.”
I love that because the first-person narrator, whoever it is, makes me wonder what in the world she did to hurt somebody else.
“Cemeteries always smelled of earthworms and damp dog fur, especially after a rain, and Bruge rather liked it that way.”
That is so beautifully creepy. Even though I don’t know who Bruge is, I’m hooked. Who is this person? Why does he like the smell of cemeteries? What happened in his past? People aren’t born thinking, “I want to go smell a cemetery today.”
Make sure your first line has a person, usually the protagonist, that we’re going to bond with and something that raises a provocative question.
Thomas: Great first lines usually shock Broca’s region of the brain. Broca’s region of the brain is the part that filters noise. When you’re sitting in a restaurant, Broca’s region filters out all the noise of other people’s conversations.
But as soon as you hear somebody raising their voice, your attention shifts. Broca’s region of the brain causes you to ask, “Am I in danger?” But when you look around and discover the shout came from someone who spilled coffee on their lap, you realize there’s no danger for you, so you return to your conversation.
Shocking Broca’s region of the brain is a challenge for authors and marketers. You’re simply noise until you do something different and unexpected. If the first sentence of your book is what people are expecting, it won’t compel them to keep reading.
Angela: Your first line leads to the second line, which leads to the third line.
What is the purpose of the first scene?
Angela: Your first scene must show your character dealing with a problem.
You’ve probably heard that you should start your novel with action, and that’s true, but the action should not be the main story event.
In many popular stories, the main event doesn’t occur until 20% of the story has been told.
For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the tornado doesn’t happen until 20% of the way into the story. In The Sound of Music, Maria only goes to the VonTrapp family after 20% of the story has happened. The movie Die Hard has Bruce Willis discovering terrorists in the building, but not until after the first 20% of the story.
Thomas: Each of those characters has interesting challenges.
Maria rushes back to the convent so she doesn’t get kicked out. A story arc is completed in that first 20%. Bruce Willis’s character is trying to save his marriage by entering the strange world of corporate America as a beat cop.
The character’s challenge gives you an opportunity to show, rather than tell, their most important character traits.
You learn a lot about somebody by how they handle the struggles that they’re facing, and you learn a lot about what they truly want.
For example, Maria says she wants to be a nun, but her actions say she wants to sing and skip in the hills.
Angela: She wants to break the grand silence and skip in the hills, but she also wants to love and serve God as a nun. She doesn’t fit into the convent.
Thomas: You also have to make your opening sequence interesting without giving away the core of the story. Beginning authors struggle to learn how to make the first arc stand on its own.
You’re essentially starting your novel with a short story. If your reader is bored by “How do you solve a problem like Maria,” then they’ll never meet the Von Trapp children because the bored reader will move on to something else.
How do you make the opening interesting without giving away the story?
Angela: The whole point of that first 20% is to reveal character by creating an obvious story problem. As you’re creating the obvious story problem, you are subtly pointing out the character’s hidden need.
In The Wizard of Oz, Ms. Gulch comes to say the dog was eating her flowers, and he’s got to go. Dorothy protests. Uncle Henry and Auntie M (who she doesn’t call Mom and Dad) tell Dorothy that Toto has to go. Ms. Gulch rides away with Toto, but Toto jumps out and comes back to Dorothy. Dorothy is so upset that she runs away from home.
She meets the traveling guy who looks in his crystal ball and pretends to see a sobbing older woman. So Dorothy goes home, and that’s when the tornado comes.
What did we learn from the first 20%?
- Dorothy loves her aunt and uncle.
- For some reason, Dorothy’s parents aren’t around.
- Dorothy is kind, and she loves Toto.
- She’s not happy on the farm.
- She’s dreaming of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”
We learned all these things without ever hearing her explain, “My mom and dad died, and that’s why I’m on the farm.” We never go back in story time. It’s always forward motion. When the tornado comes, the real story begins.
Your first 50 pages should show the protagonist dealing with an obvious problem, reveal character, showcase major players in your protagonist’s life, and be interesting. It’s a challenge.
How much of your story world should you reveal in the first 50 pages?
Thomas: Many Novel Marketing listeners write speculative fiction, and they have spent years of their life creating a fictional world with continents, people, and history. They’re often tempted to explain their worlds in those first 50 pages so that readers understand what’s going on. But that is a mistake.
Brandon Sanderson uses the metaphor of an iceberg to describe the story world. You should do all the world-building to keep the world consistent, but you only share with the reader the very top bit of the iceberg. World-building is important, but you can’t dump information on the reader right away.
By the same token, when you’re writing fantasy, your setting helps sell the story. But instead of explaining your setting, you introduce the magical elements through that little story arc of the first 50 pages.
Curiosity about the world you’ve created will pull a fantasy or sci-fi reader through the story because they want to spend more time in your world. Give them just enough at the beginning to whet their appetites.
An Example of Showing Your Fantasy World
Leviathan Wakes is the first book in the Expanse Series, which was made into an Amazon series. Its opening scene whets the reader’s appetite to know more about the world.
The protagonist is on an ice freighter carrying ice across the solar system. The setting lets you know you’re in our future solar system. The characters are dealing with real problems when they get a distress call from another ship. Suddenly, the crew is fighting over whether they will continue hauling ice or facilitate the rescue.
You learn quickly about the physics of space travel and how stopping a spaceship is a challenge. It may take days to slow down to help the other ship.
The opening is a contained story with a whole arc. The problem is whether they help the other ship or not. Eventually, the protagonist breaks the rules, disobeys the captain’s orders, and goes to help the ship.
In the first 50 pages, we’ve learned the protagonist is a rebel. He’s guided by his conscience, but he’s also kind of a bad boy. The contained story does a great job of setting the stakes before the call to adventure.
If you’re writing sci-fi fantasy, I encourage you to read the opening 50 pages of Leviathan Wakes and see how the world-building and the character development are intermingled.
What promises should you make to your reader in your opening?
Angela: The first few chapters of your novel establish a contract with your reader about the protagonist, genre, tense, point of view, voice, story world, and ending.
Angela: In your first 50 pages, you reveal your protagonist, who should be the first person introduced in your story.
Some authors introduce a secondary character first. For example, murder mysteries often open with the dead body of someone we don’t know. But chapter two begins with the detective going about his daily grind at the office, taking flak from his partner until he’s introduced to the series of murders.
If you introduce a secondary character first, you have to introduce your protagonist in chapter two, and that’s going to jar your reader. We try not to jar our readers if we can help it.
Angela: Your voice is what comes out of your fingertips onto the computer.
Thomas: Your writing voice is how you write when you’re not afraid. To find your voice, learn to write with the courage to say what you mean and write how you talk. Voice is also knowing when to break the rules and what kinds of rules you break.
Angela: Use your first 50 pages to show your story world or setting. Don’t explain or tell about it. Show whether your story is historical, contemporary, or future. Does it take place in the city, country, Europe, or a fantasy world?
If showing raises questions in the reader’s mind, that’s good. There’s a difference between raising a question in the reader’s mind and confusing the reader. If your reader puts down your book because things don’t make sense, they’re confused.
A Hint About the Ending
Angela: I learned a long time ago that one effective way to end is to echo the beginning. Set the beginning and end in the same place or time. Perhaps you can refer to a song in both places. If you include a hint of the end at the beginning of your book, the reader will subconsciously pick up on that.
How should you handle backstory in the first 50 pages?
Angela: No backstory in the first 50 pages. Write your first draft. Don’t stop. Don’t edit. Include the backstory in your first draft if you must.
But when you write your second draft, look for places where you’ve inserted what I call recollections. Look for paragraphs where your character’s mind has drifted back to the summer he first fell in love, blah, blah, blah, blah. Highlight those in yellow, cut them, and put them in a separate file called “backstory.”
Cut all the backstory, and your story will move forward faster and be more energetic. After you get past the first 50 pages and the goal, when your character is struggling at about the three-quarter point of the novel, look at your cut backstory file and determine which event in his past was most transformative.
Write a full flashback scene of the event that changed him most, and write that scene as if it were happening presently. Use that flashback right before he goes off to face his biggest challenge and bleakest moment. It will have so much more emotional punch as a single flashback than as explanations or hints sprinkled throughout the beginning.
Thomas: You have to earn the right to share the backstory because, in many ways, backstory puts the main story on hold. You haven’t earned the right to do that yet in the first 50 pages. You’re still convincing someone that your book is worth their precious time.
The same holds true for world-building. Save the explanations about how the magic works for later when your reader is more invested.
If I cut backstory, how do I reveal necessary details?
Angela: Some authors argue about backstory, saying they need to get the information across. You can do that, but you must do it in the present story time through dialogue.
For instance, in my story about the kidnapped girl, let’s say she gets dropped off at the corner by the school. She greets her friend, and they have a little conversation.
“Was that the nanny?” her friend asked.
“How many nannies have you had now?”
“Four in three years.”
Her friend retrieved a bag of fruit snacks from her backpack and said, “Here. I know you don’t get good snacks.”
That dialog paints a picture of a little girl who’s had a succession of nannies because, obviously, something happened to her mother.
If that information is important to your story, put it in dialogue in the present story time through the people your character meets.
Thomas: But dialogue alone isn’t enough. It has to be a natural dialogue of words and phrases people would actually say.
Don’t fall into the trap of having your characters tell each other things they already know by saying, “As you know, Bob, I lost my mother when I was young.”
- What does this character know?
- What do they want to know?
- What would they say?
Create a more natural conversation.
In your first draft, you can write, “As you know Bob…” as a placeholder, but you need to revise it in your second draft.
What mistakes do you see authors make in those 50 pages that cause readers to opt out of the story?
Angela: Not having a clearly defined protagonist.
I was at a writer’s conference once, and this woman said, “I’m writing a story about this little girl who’s kidnapped.”
And I said, “Is she the protagonist? Is it about the little girl and how she escapes?”
She said, “No. There’s a policeman.”
I said, “So it’s a police story, and he’s the protagonist who’s trying to rescue this little girl?”
And she said, “No. You see, there’s a lawyer.”
So I said, “Oh! He’s the one who brings the case to trial after the little girl is rescued?”
And she said, “No, but there’s a girlfriend…”
How do you choose a protagonist?
At that point, I told her to back up and choose a protagonist. Whose story is it? Is it the girl’s, the cop’s, the lawyer’s, or the woman’s? Which protagonist you choose will depend on who your ideal reader is. If I’m writing women’s fiction, I would choose the woman.
For a police procedural story, I’d choose the cop. In a story with legal flare, I’d pick the lawyer.
Thomas: Choosing a different protagonist doesn’t change the story. You could still include all those characters, but the events and experiences will be interpreted through one primary character’s point of view.
Knowing your Timothy, or your ideal reader, affects how you write your story. Keeping your ideal reader in mind and choosing a protagonist based on your reader’s preferences will allow you to bake your marketing into your book.
Good marketing is not sprinkled on top at the end like some sort of decorative sugar on a cookie. You have to bake the sugar into the cookie if you want people to enjoy it.
Think about which character’s experience would resonate best with your reader. Your protagonist must appeal to your Timothy. If you don’t get that right, you can’t fix your book by doing well in the other areas.
If your reader doesn’t care about your protagonist, they won’t stick around for 50 pages, and they’ll never recommend your book to their friends.
Where can I find more help on writing my first 50 pages?
Angela: I wrote a booklet called The First Fifty Pages, which will be released in June. In it, I refer to other short writing lessons I’ve created. All my writing books are short because I believe people would rather be writing than sitting around reading about writing.
I have 11 books in my series called Writing Lessons from the Front. Each book breaks the concept into how-to nuts and bolts and provides some examples.
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This course is great for beginners just starting on their publishing journey. It will also be helpful for established authors wanting to make a switch.
Becca Sheridan is confused. Conrad wants to get serious, but then he kicks her square-dancing club out of their meeting place and gets involved with Simone, Becca’s rival since middle school.