Whether you’re prepping to query agents, planning to submit to a small press, or aiming to self-publish, the quality of your opening pages is crucial to your manuscript’s success. When an agent sits down with your query, they’re giving you minutes, maybe even seconds, to hook them so deeply they simply must keep reading. And no matter how well-written your query letter is, if your sample pages don’t draw them in from the first sentence, they’ll move right along to the next query in line.
Honestly, this truth can be a bitter pill for us writers to swallow. After all, we know how good our story is. We know the characters are worth a reader’s time and investment, and that the plot is going to knock their socks off once they get to chapter three. But the unfortunate reality is, the market is flooded with books. Millions of free books exist on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, Wattpad, and other online sources.
And if we were to sneak a peek into a literary agent’s inbox, we’d be overwhelmed by the dizzying number of queries they receive every single week. According to a post on Liminal Pages, we’re competing with 50 to upwards of 300 other queries per week for any given agent. And how many new clients does an agent sign? Again, from that post, between three and ten new clients per year.
It’s enough to make a would-be author cry. But the good news is, you CAN do something to improve your chances dramatically–write stand out opening pages that your reader can’t put down. When your reader is so drawn in they have to know what’s going to happen, you’ll get that request from an agent. Or the reader will download your book onto their e-reader. As to how far they keep reading, that’s another matter, but today we’re going to talk about how to put your book’s best “foot” forward.
Drop your reader into the action
Beginnings are hard. You have the whole story in your head, but your readers don’t. There’s so much background and set-up they need to know to understand what’s happening…right?
Actually, this isn’t true. Readers are smart, and they can pick up pretty quickly on what’s happening as long as a few basics are in place. Then, you can drop in the rest of the needed material as it’s needed–and only if it’s truly necessary.
Now don’t get me wrong, in a first draft, you can start your story wherever you want. It might help to give the history of your MC’s childhood or describe everything leading up to the first major event in your book. But your readers DO NOT want to read one, two, or six chapters of backstory. They want to start in the action.
So when you revise, think about how you can intrigue your reader immediately by creating a sense of motion. On the very first page. Preferably in the first sentence or two. Immerse them into a scene in which something is happening, and which they can experience through your MC’s (hopefully) distinct voice/ POV. Your goal is to connect your reader to your MC and raise at least one question in their minds about the story, so that they want to keep reading.
Openings that don’t work (usually)
(I say “usually” because there are always exceptions.)
Epic battles sequences: Readers need to see and relate to your MC before they’ll care about the stakes involved in big battle scenes. In scenes like this, there’s so much going on, it can be hard for readers to stay engaged when they haven’t had a chance to connect with your characters. It’s better to start smaller.
Dream sequences: Readers tend not to care about the dreams of a character they haven’t met yet. Rather like the battle scenes, they need to connect with your MC first.
Waking up: Unfortunately, this one has been used so many times you’re likely to induce an eye-roll or automatic pass.
Any situation where the MC is passive: For example, an MC who is sitting around thinking about their life, is waiting for a phone call, or appears to be aimlessly wandering. (Probably this is what kills the waking up opener too.) Do you like waiting in line? I don’t. Why would I want to read about someone else waiting? To draw your reader into the story, they need to see the MC’s agency, or how the character is making choices/ taking action to achieve their goal. More on that next…
Introduce your MC’s goal, motivation, and conflict
Going along with this idea of agency, your reader should know within a few pages what your character wants (at least at this immediate point in the story) and why. Odds are your MC’s goal and motivation may change as the story progresses, but to create an instant sense of motion, your MC must walk onto the very first page with an agenda. What does he or she want, and why? What steps are they taking to get it? What obstacles stand in the way?
This is where conflict comes in–from whatever (or whoever) is preventing your MC from reaching their goal. If you let your MC achieve her initial goal on the second page with no apparent complications, there’s no reason for a reader to keep going. Sure, you might know that everything is going to backfire in the next chapter, but unless you sow the seeds for that conflict right now, there’s no impetus to keep reading.
If your reader knows what your MC wants and why (because this is the heart of getting us to connect with your character), we’ll be much more concerned about the conflict and obstacles standing in the MC’s way. Give us that gnawing sense of anxiety about your MC, and we’ll have no choice but to keep turning pages.
Polish until those pages sparkle
Naturally you want your entire manuscript to sparkle, but as we’ve already talked about, the opening 5-10 pages are critical. Go through your pages line by line to ensure you’re using the best techniques you know. Showing, not telling. Cutting unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. Using strong verbs and nouns. Showing the MC’s distinct voice through your word choices. Giving us insights into the MC’s emotional response to events, but without drowning us in introspection. Finding that perfect balance between dialogue, action, and description to make the setting come alive.
I won’t lie–this is hard stuff. It gets easier with practice, but making your writing sing doesn’t happen by innate skill or chance. It happens by a ruthless willingness to cut and rewrite the stuff that’s not getting the job done.
Once you’ve polished as best you can, it’s time to get feedback. Don’t skip this step! Sure, you can pay an editor to correct your pages, but if you don’t want to spend the big bucks, you have other options. Writing contests are a great way to get feedback on opening pages, because typically you only submit the first five to twenty-five pages depending on the contest. Romance Writers of America, for example, has a ton of local chapters that sponsor contests. Entry fees are typically low and you’ll often receive helpful critiques from the judges (just be sure to check the details before you enter).
Another option is to recruit a critique partner or beta reader to read your beginning. (Eventually you want to do this with the whole manuscript.) Offering to swap work makes this a great deal for both parties, and if you’re only trading twenty pages, it won’t take as a long to get feedback.
If you’re nervous about sending out your work, remember that literary agents, editors, or readers (if you self-publish) should NEVER be your first readers. Agents and editors don’t get paid for reading queries. Show respect for their time (and the Kindle Unlimited readers!) by only sending out your best work.
I’m sure I’ll think of other tips for you later, but hopefully these pointers will steer you in the right direction. If you can drop your reader into the action, show your MC’s goal and motivation, and give us an immediate sense of conflict, you’ll be a huge step ahead of the inbox competition. Best of luck on your writing endeavors! Now go forth and write.
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