Last week, I wrote how to get attention with your query letter. But once you’ve written a great query letter that’s drawn the agent or editor’s attention, the next step is, of course, keeping their attention with the manuscript itself. So what it is that agents and editors look for when reading the first pages of a submission? In my experience reading the sub pile, here are elements that pull me in:
This is the most important element for me, and the hardest one to define. The voice is the expression of personality on the page that tells the story. Everything from sentence structure to word choice to punctuation can convey voice, and all of them must work together seamlessly to keep it consistent. A killer voice will stand out right away and draw the reader in. For more on writing with strong voice, check out this post.
- A hook
It’s crucial to hook your reader right away, to make them want to keep reading your story. There are lots of ways to do this—by raising questions, using humor, introducing mystery, and more. But you must give the reader a reason to keep reading—not just in the first chapter or on the first page, but in the very first sentence. Don’t show the reader an ordinary day or waste time on backstory or explanation that the reader doesn’t care about. Draw them in with the meat of the story right away. For more on this, check out some examples of great opening lines and posts on writing great openings.
- A compelling character
It’s important to introduce your reader to a character that they’ll find compelling enough to follow for the course of the entire book. Your main character doesn’t necessarily have to be sympathetic or even likeable, but they do have to be compelling. Readers have to be given a reason to care about this story, and a fascinating character is a great way to do that. Give them a character they don’t want to stop reading about. For more about writing protagonists, see this post.
This is a simple element of all stories, but it’s often lacking in first chapters. Conflict must be present at every moment of your story. What’s stopping your character from getting what they want right now? Why isn’t there a simple solution? What will they have to do in order to get what they want? Without enough conflict, your story will quickly seem dull or uninteresting. For more on conflict, see this post.
- A central goal
Every protagonist needs a strong central goal, something that’s driving all of their actions. In genre fiction, the goal tends to be external—the detective wants to solve the murder and catch the killer, the wizard wants to defeat the dark lord, the superhero wants to defeat the villain, etc. But goals can be internal too—a character who wants to be loved, or one who needs to find self-acceptance, etc. Protagonists may or may not be aware of the goal, but readers must be. Whatever goal you choose, make sure that the protagonist takes clear, concrete steps to achieving it, or the goal may feel murky to reads. For more on goals, see this post.
- Clear stakes
What’s at stake for your protagonist if they don’t achieve their goal? This is an element that is often missing from the manuscripts I see, but it’s absolutely crucial. Give the character a reason to care about whether or not they achieve their goal, so that readers will care too. For more about stakes, see this post.
What do you think? What grabs your attention when you’re reading? How do you include these elements in your manuscript? Let me know in the comments!
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