Last time, we discussed how important the opening pages of your novel are if you want to attract the attention of a literary agent or editor. This time, we’re going to feature some important techniques that will help you be sure that your first five pages are as strong as possible.
Remember: Don’t let yourself make excuses. If you suspect your work might be suffering from some specific weakness, it probably is. So as you read the list below, you may want to make notes about your initial reactions, then go back and review your notes with an open mind. That way, you won’t be able to talk yourself out of making the revisions required to make your writing strong.
Is your prologue really, really necessary? Or can you get rid of it? If you can nix your prologue, most literary agents and editors would prefer that you do (provided that it’s extraneous).
One common “technique” of new writers is to create a snappy prologue in order to make up for the fact that the first chapter is kind of slow. If you suspect yourself of using this ploy, it may be time to revisit your first chapter.
2. Opening Action
Your opening pages must grab or hook the reader. One of the best ways to do that is to home in on an intense and important moment. It doesn’t have to be a momentous save-the-world-style action; but it might be something as small as a fifth grader trying to figure out where to sit in the cafeteria.
The important thing is that you invest the moment with gravity and importance. The character might be on the brink of real change, or might be facing a decision that will affect the people in his or her life. Whatever you open with, show that it’s important—vitally important—to the entire plot to come.
Of course, whatever character you choose to focus on should be fascinating. Show the reader right away why it’s worth spending time with your character. Is she brave, courageous, and selfless? Great. Readers want to spend time with heroes and heroines they admire. Is he devious and sinister and complex? Great. We love villains who are multidimensional, villains who believe they’re doing right—or who can’t stop themselves from doing wrong, despite the discomfort of doing it.
Your characters will pull us in. Show the reader what your characters want, and present a scene in which they are trying to get it.
NOTE: One caveat. Be careful that you don’t introduce us to too many characters at once. Hook us by the heart with ONE character first, and don’t introduce other characters until you’re sure that you’ve set the hook in deep.
Choosing a fabulous, interesting, unique, larger-than-life, out-of-the-ordinary setting for your opening pages will give them a higher interest factor. Rendering your setting in surprising and distinct detail will draw the reader into your world. Open your book somewhere that your readers have never been, and you’ll lure them in.
BUT—if your opening isn’t set in Antarctica or the forgotten storeroom of a traveling Believe-It-Or-Not show, don’t fret. What’s important is to show your setting in a way that will make something about it surprising or new to your readers. You may have an opening scene in a familiar landscape—say, the cafeteria again—but it’s how you render the scene that can make it amazing and fascinating. Use the POV (point of view) of your character to offer details that the reader may have taken for granted, details that are quietly amazing.
Perhaps what’s most important about your first scene is its momentum—the force that leads readers into the next page, and the next, and the next. Your opening pages should NOT be answering questions about your characters’ quest or your characters’ past. The opening should be asking them.
Think of your opening pages as the open door to your book. Your task is to invite and intrigue the reader to get them to come inside—and you can’t do that without a strong appreciation for mystery. So don’t offer everything you’ve got in your first pages. Tempt the reader to read on.
If you’ve got a strong opening for your book, Writer’s Relief would love to see it. Our Review Board reads novels (must be completed), which we consider for our Full Service. We help writers get literary agents or editors for their work. Read our Submission Guidelines today!
QUESTION: Which of the above tips would most improve your first five pages? Choose one and revise your opening pages with that tip in mind—tell us what happens!