What Psychology Says About the First Page of Your Novel

What Psychology Says About the First Page of Your Novel

As a psychologist I might be biased, but I believe psychology is the ultimate complement to writing.

Think about it: Psychology is the study of human behaviour and emotions, relationships and social interactions, psychopathology and human dysfunction.

What do novels explore and ultimately mirror?

You’ve got it; What characters do and feel, their relationships and interactions, the worst of humanity and our inspirational best.

This means psychology can teach us a lot about our stories, our characters and how to engage readers.

And these are all points we can use to hook our readers from the very first page of our book.

We all know the first page is key. It’s a flooded market, and readers know they have choice. Give them a solid reason to dive into your words and stay there — rather than moving on to the next cover on their Kindle.

Here’s what psychology says you need on your first page.

1.  A question (or two)

There’s one powerful motivator that led your reader to your first page — curiosity.

Curiosity brought  us life-changing items like soap, the wheel and alarm clocks (with a snooze button for sleepy writers). Curiosity has us doing completely unproductive tasks like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for or exploring places we will never visit.

Curiosity is what captured a reader’s attention when they saw your book’s title, cover and blurb. Their synapses fired. Their mind wanted to know more, because when we actively pursue new information through our curiosity, we’re rewarded with a flood of pleasure inducing dopamine (just like when we eat, have sex or snort cocaine).

And once you’ve sparked their curiosity, you need to maintain it — the best way to do this is to raise questions in their mind.

Why does Harry live under the stairs? How will Frodo escape the orcs?

Sow those little seeds throughout your first page (and every scene after that), and you’ve given your reader a reason to keep reading.

We’ve all been there, it’s 4 a.m. on a weeknight, with children that are early risers…knowing we’ve run out of coffee — but we just HAVE to know the answer!

2. Emotion

Our brains are driven by emotion.

I know we like to think we’re rational beings, applying the rules of logic calmly to those little and not-so-little decisions, but our every thought and whole perspective is colored by emotion.

Rather than convince you by giving examples of emotion’s salience in our life, I thought I’d introduce you to a man called Elliot. Tragically, Elliot lost a small section of his brain during surgery for a benign tumour. Before surgery Elliot had been a model father and husband, holding a high-level corporate job, but the operation changed everything. Afterward, Elliot couldn’t make a decision; whether to use a blue or black pen, what to have for lunch and where to park his car. He lost his job, his wife and was forced to move back in with his parents.

Why? Because Elliot could no longer feel emotion. As a result, he was completely detached and approached decisions as if he was in neutral — every option carried the exact same weight.

It turns out, emotions are the weight in the scales of choice.

What does this mean for your reader? Well, if the reader can’t feel what matters and what doesn’t, what’s important and what isn’t, then nothing matters.

So as a writer, you need to convey not just what happens on that first page (the action), but also how this affects your protagonist, and how your protagonist feels about the events (the reaction).

That is what your reader is going to connect with. Without emotion, your story will be neutral, boring, and perhaps put down and walked away from.

3. A compelling character

If you’re making a sandwich, one we want someone else to take a bite from, then these two previous points are the two slices of bread that hug your pastrami or Swiss cheese.

The bread is important, without it you don’t have a sandwich. But without the filling, you have…well, bread.

Who eats that on its own?

Your pastrami is your character. The Swiss cheese is the protagonist we’re drawn to, that we want to explore.

Research has shown we have a profound desire to try and understand the thoughts and feelings bouncing around the skulls of people we interact with (how many of us

consider ourselves people watchers?), the characters on TV and the hero introduced on your first page.

From an evolutionary sense, our fellow humans are pretty darned important to our survival. It’s why we get a burst of dopamine when someone smiles at us and the same part of our brain associated with physical pain lights up when we’re socially rejected.

How do we create a compelling character? Luckily, there are multiple paths to this uber-important goal — conflicting characteristics, a challenging situation to handle, powerful prose, a secret, a vulnerability, a driving need, a questionable goal, a primal emotion we empathise with.

This is where your writer’s mind gets to fly — but make sure you capture it on that all-important first page.

Capture your audience’s curiosity, connect with their emotions and give them a character that does both of these and you’ve got yourself a first page trifecta — one that will engage, immerse and captivate your reader.

Just have a look at the first page of your favorite book.

Does it have all three? I’d love to hear your thoughts, or how you’re planning on capturing your first page trifecta.

Filed Under: Craft
Karan Bajaj

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15 comments

  • JOHN T SHEA says:

    A teenage boy thinks his homelife is boring and longs for adventure. That’s my first page.

    Simple and quiet at first glance, but readers will already know from the novel’s cover and blurb etc. that my young protagonist soon finds more adventure than most people find in a long lifetime. The question is HOW he finds adventure, and survives it. His emotion is longing. And his character…well I’d have to tell the story to answer that one!
    Thanks Tamar!

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Hey John! I think you raise a good point – the cover and blurb are going to influence a readers expectations of your first page, and fill in some of the gaps 🙂

      • JOHN T SHEA says:

        When beta readers, editors, agents and other professionals read an unpublished manuscript they generally know less about it than any later reader will know, apart from a query letter or other information the author has provided. Advertising, covers, blurbs, reviews, even word of mouth, are all like prologues, portents and intimations of the story. The trifecta you so rightly emphasize can start working on the reader even before she or he reads the first page.

  • This is a good post. I’ve often wished I’d studied psychology and I’ve thought about how it could help a writer. My son majored in both psychology and philosophy and now works as a law librarian. 🙂 — Suzanne

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Thanks Suzanne! Having studied psychology has certainly helped me with my writing, but I also believe that every vocation (and all those personal experiences life throws at us) have so much to contribute to our writing 🙂

  • This is great advice, and should be added to the many things we need to accomplish on the first page. I will definitely go back and see if my first page/chapter does what you suggest. But…I mean this will all sincerity…the truth of the matter is that you may accomplish all this on your first page and still fail at grabbing someone’s (an agent’s) attention. Because, as a psychologist knows, taste and what interests people varies. We all come different experiences in life that those emotional grabs vary. What stimulates “that” emotion, captures a reader to question, or identify with a character is subjective. And that subjectivity will always be the underlying factor as to why an agent passed on the query/manuscript.

    • JOHN T SHEA says:

      All too true! There’s no accounting for taste, and no arguing with someone who mistakes their own tastes for divine laws that everyone else must obey! Conversely, one can break rules, even accidentally, and still snag many readers. But I greatly value guidelines such as Tamar offers, as distinct from the rigid laws other commenters try to impose on us, with dire warnings that not following them will ‘kill’ our novels.

      • I absolutely agree with you John! We writers are told so many “rules” that will “get that query read,” and “land an agent,” that our heads spin. The fear to submit is so great that many great writers fail to launch because of it. And when all is said and done, go pick up 10 books from B&N and read the first page. I will see rules not followed over and over again! Go figure. There is great advice for writing that should apply. The advice to emotionally connect, peek curiosity and create characters is sound, and should apply to any good writing. The idea for all writers is to ultimately appeal to “your” market. Most of all, write authentically, write well, and believe in what you write. Like a great painting, true works of art will surface (albeit, maybe after your dead like some many great painters…hahahaha) and good writing and good story telling will get noticed. You just have to find someone you psychologically connect with. That is a lot of frogs to kiss…but ONE will be the prince.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Great points Elizabeth! And I totally agree the every writing ‘recommendation’ (I don’t believe there are rules) should be moulded to each writers capacity to create something unique – that’s the beauty of writing for the writer, but also the reader when they pick up the next book 🙂

  • It’s so true – other factors will influence choice, but we also know that some strategies work better than others. Why not use them? As well as considering who the audience might be.
    Coincidentally, I’m reading “Confessions” by Jaume Cabre; he seems to break every rule about structure and even grammar. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read. The first line is dramatic and the images, intellectual base and emotional breadth is awe-inspiring.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Hi Jessie, I love the books that break the rules. I think guidelines are really important, because like you said, we know they work. But taking those and throwing them to the wind can always be exhilarating too 🙂

      • Julia says:

        Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist”. Mozart was deeply schooled in classical music before he became an innovator.

  • Emma says:

    I am thinking about Pride and Prejudice…
    Questions raised: Who is the man moving in? Will he fall in love with one of the Bennet daughters?

    Emotions: Interest in love story. Humor.

    Compelling characters: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.

    I appreciate your post very much, but I am thinking — are these the core things that drive a reader in this classic? Or is it the immediate jump into action and dialogue, and the pervasive irony that colors every line? I suppose it is a combination of the two.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Hi Emma,
      Interesting question! I think these psychological concepts work on a more subtle (or almost unconscious) level. The action, dialogue and irony are what grab us, but they elicit the emotion and curiosity and spark our interest in the characters. You’re right though, I wouldn’t be prescriptive about what your first page should have – there’s more than one way to grab a reader. I would suggest that if you tap into the human drive for curiosity, emotion and connection, then you’ve got an psychological advantage in hooking them : )

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