“If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.” – Agent, speaking at a recent writers conference
The opening page of your novel is your big introduction. It’s what an agent will read with most interest, to see if you can write (which is why page 1 is often the first thing read in your proposal. You may have spent 100 hours on a killer synopsis, 50 on an irresistible query, but if the writing itself is not up to snuff, the busy agent can save time by tossing the whole thing aside without reading the rest of the proposal).
Think of it this way. You are at a party and the man or woman of your dreams is across the room. The host offers to introduce you. You walk over. There is great anticipation, even from Dreamboat, who is there to meet people, too. So Dreamboat extends a hand, you take it, and say, “Nice to meet you.”
Only you have a horrendous case of garlic breath. Dreamboat winces, whips out a phone and walks quickly away, muttering, “I have to take this.”
Well, that’s what it’s like for an agent reading your first page. He or she wants to like you, but if you’ve got garlic breath, it’s all over. Bad first impression. See you later.
I taught at a writers conference recently, where attendees were invited to submit the opening page of their manuscripts – anonymously. We then put these on two transparencies. The first one as is, the second I had marked up as a tough editor might.
It was quite educational. I got 12 first pages in all, and none were ready for prime time. There were several items that should be avoided at all costs on the first page. Here they are, in no particular order:
Characters Alone, Thinking
This was in the majority of the first pages I reviewed. We did not get a scene, which is a character in conflict with others in order to advance an agenda. We got, instead, the ruminations of the character as he/she reflects on something that just happened, or the state of his/her life at the moment, or some strong emotion. The author, in a mistaken attempt to establish reader sympathy with the character, gave us static information.
Such a page is DOA, even if the character is “doing” something innocuous, like preparing breakfast:
Marge Inersha tried to mix the pancake batter, but thoughts of Carl kept swirling in her head, taking her mind off breakfast and back to Tuesday, horrible Tuesday when the sheriff had served her with the divorce papers. Tears fell into the batter, but Marge was powerless to stop them. She put the mixing bowl on the counter and wiped her eyes. How much more could she take? With two kids sleeping upstairs?
Marge is certainly hurting, but you know what? I don’t care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care that Marge is crying into her pancake batter. The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset.
They won’t. It’s like sitting at a bar and guy next to you grabs your sleeve and immediately starts pouring out his troubles to you.
Sorry, buddy, I don’t care. We all got troubles. What else is new?
Don’t give us a character like that on page 1.
Agents and editors hate it when you open with a dream. And so do most readers. Because if they get invested in a cool opening, and then discover it’s all been a dream, they feel cheated. So you may have a gripping first page, but you’ll ruin the effect when the character awakens.
Yes, I know some bestselling authors have done this. When you start selling a gazillion copies, you can do it, too. Until then, you can’t.
In most of the first pages I reviewed there was entirely too much exposition. The author thinks that this is information the reader has to know in order to understand the character and the scene.
In truth, readers need to know very little to get into the story. They will wait a long time for explanations and backstory if the action is gripping, essential, tense or disturbing. My rule, ever since I began writing and teaching, is act first, explain later.
This rule will serve you amazingly well your entire writing career.
Weather Without Character
Another complaint you’ll hear from editors and agents is about “weather openings.” This is a catch all phrase for generic description. Chip MacGregor, agent, described his opening pet peeve this way: “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
If you’re gong to describe weather on the opening page, make sure you’ve established a character on whom the weather is acting. And make sure that character is not alone, thinking.
Point of View Confusion
Another big error was a confusion about Point of View. This comes in several guises.
- We don’t have a strong POV character. Who does this scene belong to?
- We “head hop” between different characters on the same page, losing focus.
- We have the terrible sin of “collective POV.” That is, we get a description of two or more characters who think or perceive the same thing at the same time: John and Mary ran from the gang, wondering where they were going to go next. The 300 Spartans turned and saw the Persians approaching.
- We have First Person narration without a compelling voice. First Person needs attitude.
- We don’t have a POV at all until the second or third paragraph. We have description, but no idea who is perceiving it. We need that information right away.
There you have it! A load of breath mints for your opening pages. Let the meet-and-greet begin!
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.
Gwyn Huff says
If we read for entertainment we have incredible choices and no wait time-it’s an incredible time to live. If a reader, get’ s tired or busy, just “switch” to audible. As a reader, the author’s ability to disappear and the story come to life is what matters. I appreciated this article and the discussion in the comments, because now I’m going to try and identify what pulled me out of a scene or what kept me from getting into the story in the first place. All of you are great. Thanks
Bryan Fagan says
I wish the conference I attended worked on first page manuscripts. That would have been fun and educational. I will be attending the writer’s conference this summer in Portland, Oregon. I will add this to the suggestion box.
When we completed my first novel our goal was to have the reader know what they were getting themselves in to. It was a delicate balance. It was challenging. We covered many of the things you mentioned. Overall our goal was one page where the reader either stayed with us or put the book down. That’s a lot of pressure on any writer but it had to be done.
In my second novel I want the protagonist to explode on to the scene. Sort of like the pilot episode of Breaking Bad. Another thing I want to do: I do not want the reader to like him. That might be a risk but it has to be done.
Thank you for writing this. Lots of great stuff!!!
JOHN T. SHEA says
I’m always bemused by how much such rules are a writer (and agent) thing rather than a reader thing. As a writer, I study them carefully, but they never bother me as a reader. I’ve enjoyed novels violating each and all of these rules. In particular, the novel I’ve most enjoyed recently begins with a prologue and a seven-page dream sequence!
BECCA PUGLISI says
Interesting, John! I would agree that as writers/agents/etc., we probably get more caught up in “the rules” than the reader. But as a reader myself, I do find the same things bugging me over and over. There are a lot of books I start that I never finish, and that usually happens within the first 2 or 3 chapters, so I want to avoid those things that turn me off. While I know there are universal-type problems, it’s true that each reader is probably a little different when it comes to their deal breakers :).
JOHN T. SHEA says
Indeed! I nearly always finish reading a book, though the process of browsing and buying it means I know more about the story than an agent can learn from a query and I have more time than the agent.
Jim, the “garlic breath” analogy is PRICEless! Just love this 😀 Thanks!
Cary Richards says
Boy! There’s nothing worse for a reader to have to struggle through a first page. I’ve put down many a book and never come back.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Right? I’ve struggled through it as a reader so many times—I don’t want to create the same situations as an author.
Cindy Lynn Sawyer says
Thank you for the great advice! I know I’ve been guilty of one or two of these. POV used to be quite the struggle for me.
Traci Kenworth says
Some great things to look for!
Jay Hicks says
I love articles with great examples of what not to do. You sure know as a reader when you do get a great opening page. It’s like: yes, I’m ready to invest in this. Opening at the incident which changes your character’s life is a great place to start – but this means you have to know your story. Personally I’ve been able to find this at the end of first draft. I wrote my novel in scenes, hopping around as ideas came to me. By choosing a great incident to open with now has been easy now I know that big event – and where it leads – inside out.
BECCA PUGLISI says
One of the biggest problems I see when critiquing first pages is them starting in the wrong spot. It’s so hard to find that magical place where it’s not so far into the story that the reader is confused, but it’s not so far before the story begins that they’re bored as you set everything up. I wish I knew where I read it, but someone once said to start your story before the protagonist’s life changes. That’s been a good rule of thumb for me.
JOHN T. SHEA says
On the other hand, garlic breath should keep away vampires!
Mary Kate says
The first draft of the first book I ever wrote started with the protagonist, alone on a train, thinking about a dream she had that exposited her whole backstory, while looking out at the rain 😀 I have since learned my lesson!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I think many of us have an opening that sounds a bit like this, lol. Oh the days when we didn’t know better. 🙂 Great post, Jim – and the title gave me a great big chuckle this morning. 🙂