I’ve been traveling this week and haven’t been able to write a new post, so instead I’d like to share an older post from the archives that new readers haven’t seen (and older readers might like to revisit). This was originally posted on May 21st, 2015.
The opening pages of your novel are the most important. They are not only the first thing your reader will see, but also an introduction to your work for agents/editors you’ve submitted to. Think of the first pages as a crucial first impression that can affect the reader’s opinion of the entire work. But what do agents or editors look for in first pages? How can you make sure that your first pages are engaging enough to make that great impression? Here are my tips:
- Have a great voice
More than anything else, a great voice is the biggest element I look for in a submission’s opening pages. An irresistible, intriguing, and engaging voice will draw your reader into the story, but a bland or unremarkable voice will turn them away. Voice is incredibly subjective and difficult for the writer to judge alone, which is why it’s so important to have other readers—critique partners, beta readers, and/or professional editors—critique your work.
What does great voice look like? Consider the following novel openings:
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
–Feed by M.T. Anderson
“There once was a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.”
–Stardust by Neil Gaiman
“The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.”
–Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Each of these lines demonstrates a great voice, yet they’re very different from each other. Strive to make the voice in your first pages equally distinctive and strong.
- Open with impact
By “impact,” I mean a line or statement the reader cannot ignore, like a gut-punch; something stunning or surprising. This is especially effective in your opening line, but can be continued throughout the opening pages. Here are a few more examples of opening lines from novels; consider the impact that these lines have on the reader:
“My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die. I counted.”
–On Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
–Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”
–The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
- Be intriguing
Including a hint of something strange, mysterious, or inexplicable is another great way to make your opening pages engaging. Keep your readers asking questions about what sort of world this is—and make them read on to find the answers. This doesn’t meant that you should make your opening pages confusing; instead, strive for a balance of information that hints at what’s happening while also raising new questions.
Here are further examples of opening lines that intrigue the reader:
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
–I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
–1984 by George Orwell
“I am an invisible man.”
–Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”
–Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler
- Hint at conflict
What do many of the opening lines above have in common? They all hint at some form of conflict, at something that has or will go wrong. Too often, I see manuscripts that open by showing a normal day in a character’s life, or introducing a parade of characters. This is an easy way to lose your reader, because they don’t yet care about these characters or their story. Use conflict to hook the reader and make your opening exciting. Even if the central conflict is only hinted at, it must be present from the very first page.
- Avoid backstory and explanation
The most frequent issue that I see in submissions is an opening that includes too much backstory or explanation. Fortunately, this is also an easy problem to fix. Again, the reader has no reason to care about these characters at this point, so they don’t care about their background or the elaborate details of their world. Give your reader a reason to care about what’s happening, and then gradually include the backstory and detail that the reader needs to go forward.
- Don’t forget characterization
Another frequent issue I see, especially with fast-paced or action-oriented openings, is a lack of characterization. Remember that your reader doesn’t know who your protagonist is yet. Why should they care about this character and invest time in their story? What is it that makes your protagonist compelling or unique? Again, we’re not looking for backstory here, but do include enough subtle characterization to help your readers connect with your characters.
Remember that this is your first impression! Typos and errors in your first pages don’t bode well for the rest of the manuscript and make your reader reluctant to continue. An agent or editor probably won’t reject your MS just for a typo, but it will make them wary. Be especially vigilant about proofreading those opening pages to make your work look polished and professional.
What do you think? What are the most important elements of engaging first pages? Which of these issues do you struggle with? Tell me in the comments!
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