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!
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.