Writing Page One of your Book


    You want to write a novel.

    What should be on page one?

    To answer this, I'll provide a few suggestions, and then a clear example (both good and bad) of a SF opening scene.

    You get to decide which is the good version.

    Simple Suggestions:

    "Facts and details are the spice required to keep your readers reading. Use facts and details sparingly, a tiny bit at a time, and sprinkle them throughout your whole story, preferrably as needed. Don't dump all your information at the earliest possible moment."

    "Focus on your characters to make them real to your readers. If your readers don't care about your characters, they won't care about their adventures."

    "Start small, with one or two characters. Make them different people with different wants and needs. At least one of them should be doing something to resolve one of their wants or needs. At least one of them should not be a jerk."

    "Don't provide information that your characters do not need at that specific time."

    "Imagine the opening scene and identify at least one of each of the five senses to include: sounds, smells, sights, etc..."

    "Stay in the moment. Every second, your character is aware only of what is going on at that second, not just what they see, but what they feel. Characters may think of other times, but only when the needs of their current situation are not painful or threatening."

    "When no one has an urgent need, there is no tension. You need tension. Long term goals won't cut it."

    "What makes this character different from every other character? Until you can answer that, you shouldn't be writing about that character."

    "Strangers are more likely to be polite to each other than best friends. Real friends aren't afraid to frequently argue with each other. If your characters are best friends, they wouldn't constantly agree with each other ... or constantly call each other by their first names. Add contention to show different points of view."


    Which version of this opening scene do you prefer?

    Page 1, version 1:

    "Abandon Ship"
    "Abandon Ship"

    Alarm filled Jake, but he winced against the deafening clamor of the automated warning blasting over the terrified screams of his crewmates, and repeatedly pressed the launch button. Sparks from short circuits flashed from every console as smoke filled the depressurized bridge. His first thought had been to follow his intense training and flee for the life-pods the instant the signal came, followed by his natural reaction the run when confronted by certain death, yet he had one last functioning torpedo tube, and the crew had loaded it with one of their few remaining torpedoes, and he'd been targeting an enemy ship when the alarm sounded. Just a few more seconds and he could fire ... assuming that any of his controls still worked.

    Jake knew he was being stupid. His fellow bridge officers, the ones whose dead bodies weren't floating around the darkened chaos before his eyes, had vanished, obeying the captain's last order.

    "Torpedo Launch Confirmed"

    The readout kicked his panic into overdrive. Without a backwards glance, Jake ran for the emergency hatch, using both his hands and the magnetic grips in the soles of his boots. Maneuvering without gravity was difficult, especially in a pressure suit, but the artificial gravity had been one of the first systems to fail entirely, and he had no other option. Nothing remained of The Starbeast but wreckage, and he had to escape before he became part of it.

    As he reached the hatch, the blinding light beyond told him that he was too late. He'd only been a minute behind his comrades; he'd expected them to wait for him. Yet the blast showed that the bridge life-pod had launched, and departed, and he wasn't on it.

    How could they leave him?

    A second could have passed, or several millennia, with countless cries of misery coming through his radio, before Jake turned back and hurried toward the back door, ducking a body floating above him. Another life-pod was located only fifty feet down the passageway, and it was his only hope of escape. The passageway was choked with floating corpses, whole or in pieces, and its walls, floor, but ceiling were painted with the gore from those who couldn't get inside a pressure suit fast enough. He tried to run, but the slick blood and frozen entrails fouled his traction, and in desperation he seized the floating corpses and pulled them backwards, slowly propelling himself forward.

    He'd never get out at this speed.

    When he reached the life-pod hatchway, he found it gone, and he cursed.

    "Lieutenant Jake Saunders here!" he pressed the button to activate his radio. "Where are you?"

    Only screams responded. Jake looked about frantically, and then pulled himself through the hatch into the next passageway. No one had exploded here, but the blood frozen onto his soles made traction possible but hard, even on the clean metal deck. Bodies were floating ... and he recognized their horrified faces, frozen in pressure suits with an arm blasted off, or with a cracked face-shield; he raised his forearms to protect his helmet and plowed through them like a slow linebacker, leaving them spinning behind him.

    He saw three people in suits running ahead of him, and he chased them, calling to them on his radio, but they never replied. Suddenly their passageway wall gleamed red, and then a burst of laser-light fell upon the suits running before him, blasting through the hull. Jake skidded to a stop, scraping gloves against both walls to keep from falling into the destructive beam.

    When the beam stopped, most of the wall to his upper right was gone, as were those poor souls that he'd been chasing. Opposite the starlight coming through the hole, he saw the blast had disintegrated part of the floor and the wall opposite it. Dimly he recalled that the most life-pods were located in the cargo holds, where the many colonists could reach them. Careful not to touch the smoking edges, Jake lowered himself through the hole into the level below.

    "Anti-matter shielding failure detected"

    Great! Jake thought. Soon this ship of corpses would explode like a sun ... with him still on it!

    A life-pod! Disbelieving his luck, Jake bounced from wall to wall and reached it; the air-lock was closed, and he spun the dial and felt it move. Without waiting, he climbed in, glancing only once to see that no one living was chasing after him; he wouldn't to do them what the bridge crew had done to him. Then he closed and sealed the hatch behind him.

    Waiting the precious seconds while air filled his chamber, he still pushed against the door, although he knew it wouldn't open until the cycle was complete. Most civilians didn't know how to operate a life-pod, and few had pressure suits; he imagined with disgust the holocaust that must exist in the hold, where a thousand colonists had been waiting to be delivered safely. He briefly wondered about his last torpedo, if it had really launched, and if it had hit its target, but he'd never know. The cycle was almost complete ...

    Jake pushed the door open and jumped into the life-pod ... and saw her. She was a child, barely six years old ... and she was alone, floating between the deployed safety harnesses.

    Her lips moved. Jake made out her one word: "Mommy".

    Flipping the catches as he pushed forward, Jake pulled off his helmet and threw it aside, then seized her and moved her out of his way as he attacked the pilot's console. Before he was properly seated, he began the start-engine process, desperate to get away. The anti-matter shield wouldn't last much longer ...

    "Where's mommy?" the little girl screamed.

    When he didn't answer her, she turned and pushed back, trying to swim through the air to the rear of the ship. Jake suspected that he knew exactly what had happened to 'mommy', but he didn't have time to explain it, nor could he allow her to reach the air-lock and open it. He reached back, grabbed her kicking ankle, and pulled; screaming, kicking and punching, she fought against him, but he strapped himself in and pulled her against his chest.

    The engine roared to life, and Jake launched. From zero gravity, they jumped to three-gees almost instantly, and both he and child screamed against the sudden pressure.

    Only stars met their eyes as they emerged from the shattered hull. In the distance, Jake saw several other life-pods streaking away ... and the remaining rubble of several life-pods that the enemy had blasted. He saw three enemy ships gaining speed, rocketing away; they must have detected the radio warning about the anti-matter shielding. Jake squeezed the arms of his chair, unable to do anything else to hasten their departure. If they didn't escape the explosion, it would take them out, and then the remains of their huge ship would become shrapnel capable of tearing their tiny life-pod to ribbons ... unless they got away very quickly ... and were incredibly lucky.


    Page 1, version 2:

    The alarm sounded to abandon the ship. Jake Saunders, the lieutenant in charge of weapons, delayed obeying the alarm only a minute to fire their last weapon. Their ship was mostly destroyed. They'd been transporting over a thousand colonists when their ancient enemy attacked them. The enemy vessel was vorcon class, the next generation of the kladsivy cruiser, and very formidable, both in greknal armor and dlopminar armaments. They had fought bravely and with superior skill, and before Captain Lazette was slain, they had destroyed the enemy vessel.

    Yet three small Blargen destroyer ships arrived as the battle ended, and the heavy damage they'd suffered limited their defensive capabilities. With their stardrive engines ruptured, the three smaller ships destroyed their remaining capabilities, beyond hope of repair. The ship was lost, and had to be abandoned.

    Jake hated the Kalmargs. The war between Earth and the Kalmargs started a century before, when the Kalmargs decided to annex planets Earth had colonized. Their first assaults had been brutal, and millions of civilians died. Kalmargs were an insectoid race, and ate the same foods humans ate, and they also ate humans.

    As Jake tried to launch their last torpedo, every console sparked and smoked. Jake couldn't hear or smell it, for he was inside his pressure suit, as cracks in the hull had vented all their air. Pressure suits were required for the bridge crew, as starship hulls were notoriously fragile, and no human could endure the intense cold and airlessness of space. Jake also hated pressure suits, but he was glad he was wearing one ... since he'd be dead without it. He'd been one of the first to don his suit. All of his crewmates who hadn't put on a pressure suit were now dead, floating around the bridge because the artificial gravity plating had failed.

    The last torpedo finally launched, and Jake rose from his chair and headed for the emergency hatch. He was the last person alive to leave the bridge, as all the others had fled at the first signaling of the alarm. The bridge crew had a special life-pod kept ready for them, only one door away. He arrived at the hatchway only a minute after the others had vanished through it ... and as he looked, the twin blasts of their thrusters suddenly came to life, filling the room beyond with light and fire. The bridge life-pod, their only emergency escape vehicle, blasted out of the ship and zoomed away, carrying with it his last hope of survival.

    Jake wondered how they could have left him behind. He had known most of his bridge crewmates well, and liked them, and thought that they liked him. Lois Keenbil was his best friend, and he suspected she wanted to be more than a friend, but he wasn't interested in her; he was enamored with Halley Jones, although he couldn't approach her romantically, as she reported to him. John Kelly was a good navigator, and he liked him, although they had rarely spoken. Gene Inonas was a great pilot, but a little too crazy at the stick. Jake didn't like how sharply Gene would turn the huge vessel. But they and three others, Finnigan, Martins, and Witherson, had climbed into the life-pod and left him behind. Perhaps they had thought that he was dead.

    His radio speakers inside his pressurized helmet were broadcasting screams of people, probably trapped as he was. He would have to find another way to escape the ship.

    Ducking under a floating body, Jake went to the normal door to the rest of the ship. There, he saw more bodies floating and blood splattering all the walls. Sudden reductions of air pressure could cause an unprotected human body to explode, and several bodies had. The blood and guts were also frozen due to the intense coldness of space.

    His boots slipped upon the icy entrails. Pressure suit boots have magnetic soles which can attach to exterior hulls or metal floors, which all spaceships had. Jake struggled to get fifty feet down the passage, where another life-pod awaited, as life-pods were scattered all over the ship, to be available whenever and wherever the need arose. Most were in the cargo section, as ships like the Starbeast were often used to convey large numbers of colonists. Yet, when Jake arrived, he found the pod-bay empty. The life-pod was already gone.

    A new warning sounded over the screams on his radio; the anti-matter shielding was about to fail. If he didn't get off the ship soon, it would blow up.

    Frustrated, Jake proceeded down another passageway, wondering where he'd find an unused life-pod. In the distance, Jake saw three other people in pressure suits, and he followed them. Suddenly a blast tore through the hull and disintegrated them all, leaving holes that the starlight winked through, and another hole deeper into the interior of the ruined ship. Seeking the many life-pods before, Jake floated down through the hole.

    Jake found a life-pod, climbed into it, and waited through the air-lock cycle. When he entered the life-pod, he found a small girl with tears in her eyes mouthing the word "Mommy" at him. He hurried past her, and started the engine. She tried to go back and open the air-lock, so he grabbed her and held on as they launched and flew away.


    Now, which style would you prefer your first page to resemble?

    Do that!