Your opening pages will make or break your story. I wish I was overstating it, but there it is, in cold black text. If I had to boil down what I learned in the WD webinar Start your Story Right – How to Hook an Agent with Your Opening Pages, it would be that your first pages are the single most important thing in determining your success with agents, editors, book buyers, and ultimately paying readers.
Sounds daunting. But Resource Roundup is here to help.
As in previous posts in this series (Finding the Right Word, Conjuring Up Titles, and Crafting Dialogue), I focused on online resources. There were a ton of posts out there, which I’ve gone through and evaluated for their usefulness. But if you’ve come across other valuable resources, please tell me about them in the comments, and I’ll include them when I add this to my Resource Roundup page on the sidebar.
And if these posts aren’t enough for you, be sure to check out the Writer’s Knowledge Base, a new search engine for writing related posts (thanks to author Elizabeth Spann Craig and Mike Fleming).
The Industry’s Take
Think of the last time you browsed at a book store or library. When you skimmed through the first chapter, what made you keep reading? What made you put the book down and pick up something else? Now imagine that process on larger scale as agents and editors weed through submissions. Yikes.
Some conferences offer workshops where opening pages are read and a panel of agents and editors indicate when they would stop reading and why. Author Therese Walsh went through this process as described in Agents and the First Two Pages via Writer Unboxed, and she provides some impressions for how to make your work stand out. Writer Livia Blackburne (who you may know from A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing) also identified the 7 Reasons Agent’s Stop Reading Your First Chapter in a post at Guide to Literary Agents based on a similar conference session.
From the other side of the table, agent Kristen Nelson offers her insights from these types of sessions in her posts The Toughest Workshop to Give and Post Workshop Debrief. If you want to know what types of openings do work for her, check out this post Opening Pages that Caught Our Attention.
The post First Pages, First Impressions via Routines for Writers provides a librarian’s insights as to what makes her keep reading a book. And if you don’t know how influential librarians can be to book sales, shame on you.
Author Janice Hardy says writers have essentially 250 Chances to grab a reader. More recently, Author Jody Hedlund discusses the Increasing Importance of the First Chapter not just for unpublished authors who want to stand out in the slush pile, but also for published authors given the availability of digital previews.
Some people say forget the first chapter, forget the first few pages, you must grab me with your opening line. That’s a lot of pressure for one sentence – the lynchpin for the rest of your work.
So how to you begin? Fiction Notes thoroughly classifies different types of Opening Lines. You can also get a sense of more general Types of Book and Chapter Openings from Kathy Teaman’s blog Writing and Illustrating.
Author Janice Hardy offers some insights for how to write a good first line in her post First and a Lot More than Ten at her blog Other Side of the Story.
Want some inspiration? Check out the 100 Best First Lines from Novels courtesy of the American Book Review. Adventures in Children’s Publishing has also collected compelling openings from Young Adult and Children’s novels.
There are a lot of story elements to juggle when starting your story. As Les Edgerton, author of Hooked explains, an opening scene has ten core components: (1) the inciting incident; (2) the story-worthy problem; (3) the initial surface problem; (4) the setup; (5) backstory; (6) a stellar opening sentence; (7) language; (8) character; (9) setting; and (10) foreshadowing. (To learn more about Hooked, see this recap.)
Author Joanna Bourne assures us that it is “technically difficult” to start a story, and she offers some general advice in her post Technical Topics – Five Pointers on Openings, including hitting the ground running and revealing character.
Freelance editor Jason Black provides some insights on How to Establish Your Characters in the opening pages of your story.
You’ve probably also heard the mantra “Start with action.” But action without a strong sense of character or emotional context can leave your readers scratching their heads. Publishing guru Jane Friedman deconstructs this idea in her posts The Biggest Bad Advice about Story Openings and Story Openings: What Constitutes Significant/Meaningful Action? Be sure you aren’t starting with action for action’s sake.
When you think you’ve done all you can with you opener, take a look at A Litmus Test for Your Opening Scene via Fiction Groupie to see if you got what it takes.
If you are still having difficulty crafting a satisfying opening, check out the post Trouble Opening Your Story at Write Anything to see if their suggestions help you rework your beginning.
What Not To Do
Still not sure if your opening is a winner? Take a look at the following posts to ensure you aren’t making common mistakes with your beginning:
Agent Kristen Nelson gives examples of Killer Openings that can almost guarantee a rejection.
Author Kristen Lamb offers up some common problems from your opening pages that may foreshadow other issues later on in your story in the post The Doctor is in the House – Novel Diagnostics.
Author Therese Walsh from Writer Unboxed shares her impressions on Beginnings as a result of judging contests.
Remember 7 Reasons Agent’s Stop Reading Your First Chapter from earlier? If you’ve found you are guilty of one of these examples, read Janice Hardy’s post Seven Deadly Sins (If You’re a First Chapter) to see how to fix your beginning.
Special Case of Prologues
Prologues are out of vogue right now. Some agents and editors have an autoreject policy when a dreaded prologue comes across their desk. Why do they have such a bad rap?
Agent Kristen Nelson suggests that they are often employed incorrectly or are simply unnecessary in her post Why Prologues Often Don’t Work. Former agent Nathan Bransford also weighs in on what makes a prologue work (or not).
Authors Janice Hardy in Pondering the Prologue and Kathy Temean in To Prologue or Not to Prologue offer questions to help you decide whether a prologue is essential to your story.
I hope you find these resources as you craft your awesome opening for your story. And if I’ve overlooked anything, please let me know in the comments.