A detailed analysis of the first page of my recent novel, A Letter From Sarah
Here’s the first page and below is how and why I constructed the architecture of the first page of a novel.
A Letter From Sarah
She’d been missing for seven years. They weren’t looking for her anymore. There’d been the occasional sighting which gave rise to hope, but they’d been mistaken happenings, and he’d wished one of them had come to fruition; the hardship of maybe, and might be, was hard to take. He preferred nothing. And wanted to be left alone with grief untainted by the glimmers produced by sightings in this country and others. He was nearing the anniversary of her disappearance, when she’d been missing for a week, then a month, then a year. He remembered the early articles, short pieces at first, then half a page. The press had been indifferent in the beginning, but as time passed there was a torrent of reporting from journalists.
He walked across the room to a mantelpiece, reached for a wooden box and opened it. The monochrome photograph was white at the edges as he’d held it so many times; it was the only one he could bring himself to look at. Her face was lit on one side, the other eclipsed in shadow. He sat in an old armchair holding the photo. She’d been a good sister, kind, thoughtful, always aware of his moods, whether sullen or optimistic. She’d lifted him when he was morose or lacked creativity, and had offered suggestions to help him overcome the times when inspiration was hard to come by.
There was a sound above him, a moaning wail, crying out for help, and a thudding sound on the ceiling. The voice was wheezy and there was some anger to it, so he put the photograph back in the box.
He trudged up to the first floor and stood for a moment, then reached for the bronze handle. It was almost dark in the room. The curtains were drawn, and he could make out his father, a silhouette, apart from some light slanting through the curtains that caught the side of his face. He had white hair, a beak of a nose and a white beard, greying at the edges. With impatience he turned to his son.
Sentence one and two are there to hook the reader, and to divulge two pieces of information that set up the theme of the book. In this first line, the reader knows someone has been missing for a prolonged period of time: seven years. And that the inquiry has been called off. The third sentence uses the conversational, ‘There’d’ to explain that sightings of the missing person had led to nothing, suggesting that there’d been an extensive operation to locate her.
We then move on to the protagonist. I use ‘He’ instead of his name to make a slower introduction to the character, and giving the information that he’d grown tired of mistaken sightings as they brought on ‘glimmers of hope’ that he’d rather not be tormented by. The last sentences of the paragraph discuss the media’s response to the girl’s disappearance by saying the press had taken little interest when she’d first disappeared, but then there’d been a great deal of press coverage. I did this in as few words that I could, to let the reader know the history of the disappearance and how the press reacted so that we can quickly move onto paragraph 2.
Now I have a ‘set piece’ in which ‘He’, the mourner, walks to a mantelpiece and examines a photo of the missing girl. By saying that it was the only photograph he could bear to look at, I emphasise the pain he is still suffering due to the girl’s disappearance.
Then I reveal it’s his sister who has been missing for so long, and say a little about her character by saying that she’d always been kind and supportive of his creative endeavours. With this I reveal a little about the protagonist by letting the reader know that he is creative in some way; and I let the reader know that the ‘she’ is the protagonist’s sister.
Now I introduce another character by bringing in a sound, a moaning wail, that the protagonist can hear above him. I just describe the voice here. So I’m introducing this new character slowly. This should provoke the reader into the question of who is making the thudding sound. So hopefully I now have the interest of the reader, by announcing the edges of a new character’s traits: that he has a wheezy voice and is angry about something; we don’t know why he or she is angry.
The last paragraph is another set piece, and is the second action the protagonist has taken. He goes upstairs to see to the sounds he’s heard. I then describe a dark room with the silhouette of the father (another edge to the character) Then I make a more detailed description of the father.
So in this first page I introduce three characters: the protagonist, the sister he’s lost and his father. I try and do this by describing the characters without too much description, and to offer crumbs of identification that hopefully will hook the reader, so she or he is interested to learn more about the three characters.
I try and minimise description, and have a mixture of the missing girl and the protagonists’ actions by not giving too much away; and I try and ‘lure’ the reader into the story by offering glimpses of the main characters in the hope he will be interested enough to know more.
This is more effective than spelling things out in too much detail. Page 1 is very important because more often than not, it will be the page the reader will examine in a bookshop or on Amazon. If they are reading page 1, they are more likely than not going to know something about the characters as they have probably read the blurb on the back of the book or a review.
My aim on page 1 is to try and hook the reader into wanting to know more by just offering tantalising clues to events and characterisation without giving away too much.